Is the rise of the biographical novel a problem?
Truthful Fictions: Conversations with American Biographical NovelistsPublisher: Bloomsbury
Length: 264 pages
Author: Michael Lackey
Publication date: 2014-02
Biographical fiction has long annoyed me. Like memoir, it has become the easy way to quickly scale the best-seller list. See Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, based on Hadley Hemingway. The New York Times dubbed the book literary tourism, which failed to dent its sales.
Therese Anne Fowler’s Z, a fictionalized account of Zelda Fitzgerald’s life, is a good read, but I wonder how many people read it instead of Fitzgerald's Save Me the Waltz. Then there’s the alarming pile of works Plathian (Sylvia). See also Anne Sexton.
Michael Lackey, a University of Minnesota professor, wades into the fray with Truthful Fictions. This collection of interviews attempts to tackle the problems of biographical fiction by interviewing 16 writers of, you guessed it, biographical fictions.
If you’re asking why biographical fiction is a problem, you’ve come to the wrong place. Or been away from University too long. To be an academic in the Humanities, forced to publish or perish, one must “problematize” literature. This is the act of locating a literary blip—say, the perceived increase in biographical fiction—and applying postmodern theory to said blip. If all goes well, your erudite problematizing lands at an academic press and you, academic, do not perish. The readability of your publication is perhaps a secondary concern.
Truthful Fictions begins inauspiciously. Lackey’s sentences bristle with impenetrable academic language. Worse is his repeated use of the word “contra”, meant here as “in disagreement with”. “Contra”, Spanish for “against”, is not only out of place here, it’s downright bizarre. While English is an endlessly flexible language capable of incorporating new terms, those terms generally have group consensus. When a word crops up multiple times in a piece of writing, startling the reader, there’s a problem.
Readers who do stick with the introduction will be rewarded by Lackey’s concluding assertion that "the decline of theory..." means “I have strategically avoided interjecting too much theory into the interviews... most of the writers in this volume consider it mind-numbing and intellectually reductive." He adds that one writer, speaking off the record, told him the current crisis in the humanities could be directly ascribed to theory’s “alienating jargon”(!)
Lackey himself has a few points to make, and hammers on them throughout Truthful Fictions. He's ostensibly interested in why biographical fiction took off in 1980 and remains so popular. Yet his interview questions refer continually to Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men, published in 1947, and William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, published in 1968.
Warren is taken to task for changing Governor Huey Long’s name, while Styron is savaged mercilessly. Styron certainly took a risk writing as an African American in dialogue--in 1968. Politically correct contemporary readers would do well to remember how different life was over 40 years ago. Warren was also a product of his era—a time when discretion was the norm. One changed names to maintain privacy.
Further, Lackey’s range is limited. Naturally he could not include every biographical novel ever penned, but his relentless focus on Jay Parini’s Benjamin’s Crossing means he overlooked Barbara Kingsolver’s
The Lacuna, an excellent novel mixing a fictional protagonist with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
Also conspicuously absent from the discussion is Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt, an account of Binh, Vietnamese cook for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Both books feature homosexual characters living at a time when such desires were verboten. Given Lackey’s interest in representations of homosexuality in the biographical novel, these are significant oversights indeed.
Lackey’s touchstones for Truthful Fictions are the aforementioned Benjamin’s Crossing and Georg Lukács' The Historical Novel. Woe betide the reader unfamiliar with either book, for she will be adrift in Truthful Fictions. In The Historical Novel Lukács posits the following: the biographical novel, with its emphasis on a biographical hero, necessarily neglects or misconstrues history. Ergo, the biographical novel is a failure.
Lackey takes these criticisms to his interview subjects, who respond in a rising chorus: my task as a writer is to get inside the character, in turn creating the novel. Russell Banks, speaking of Cloudsplitter, describes altering maps and timelines in service to the narrative. Despite its basis in reality, Cloudsplitter is a novel. It makes no gestures toward historical accuracy. Banks feels readers should understand this.
Julia Alvarez, speaking of the Mirabal sisters, and Kate Moses, of Sylvia Plath, are especially moving about their need to honestly portray their characters. Moses spoke of a deep responsibility to “the facts of her (Plath’s) life” and “needing to illuminate her from the inside.”
All the writers spoke of fiction’s comparative freedom. The biographer is constricted by “the truth”: time, place, setting, appearances. The fiction writer can and does play with all these things. This is their ultimate defense for writing fiction instead of straight biography: the right to invent, to imagine, the take a jumble of interesting facts and polish them into a story.
While reading intelligent writers is always a pleasure, Truthful Fiction’s interviewees, for all their ardent, articulate sincerity, soon become repetitive. This is not their fault: Truthful Fictions would be better served as an article or monograph, where its valid points could be made with brevity.
Truthful Fictions will have a limited audience, but perhaps it was intended to. Despite Lackey’s assertions to the contrary, the book is theory-laden, and as such, I can’t help but think it is directed solely at fellow academics. This makes reviewing it challenging, for Truthful Fictions is not a book for the casual reader. The reader interested in theory, perhaps, or the writer curious to know how others address biographical writing, but not the rest of us.