3:00pm

Wed July 20, 2011
Commentary

A Not-So-Enjoyable Biography

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Commentator Andrei Codrescu has been reading some biographies this summer and he is not happy.

Mr. ANDREI CODRESCU (Author, "Whatever Gets You through the Night"): I picked up a biography of Kay Boyle by Joan Mellen. I met Kay in San Francisco in the '70s, a formidable grand dame with her regal presence and a radical temperament.

Part of the gang of American expatriates in Paris in the 1920s that included Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, she'd written novels, stories and journalism and done two stints in jail for civil disobedience.

I should have known when I started reading her biography that I was in for a nightmare. The biographies of writers are often hostile because biographers bring their own frustrated lives into play under the cover of research.

It was fascinating, in a cringing sort of way, to learn all the ways in which Kay Boyle failed her children and her husbands, but at some point I realized that I was no longer reading Kay Boyle's biography but the autobiography of the biographer, who was now using her subject to settle her own scores.

She had her plenty of fuel for this retrospective auto-da-fe. Needing money, Kay Boyle had occasionally dumbed-down her talents to write for popular magazines and she sold her letters to universities, believing, like many writers do now, that therein lies vindication not indictment.

In the 19th century, when official archives for personal papers barely existed, many writers had the good sense to burn their private papers. These days, the biographies of writers sell better than the writers' work. It seems that readers prefer the simpler story of schadenfreude to the scary operations of art.

In the culture of instant celebrity, the biographical enterprise is in full swing. A huge market in biographies and biopics feeds a growing appetite that needs subjects so badly the subject is often born around the same time as his or her biography. Writers who rate zero on the celebrity scale now were the starter fuel for this bonfire of nastiness.

The only thing missing from the merciless and entertaining marshaling of biographical facts on Kay Boyle is life. Kay consumed herself and, one now sees, quite a few others, in an effort to live a socially useful life. The same facts that gave life to her work and her battles are here used against her. If a biographer calls, don't answer the door.

SIEGEL: Andrei Codrescu's latest book is "Whatever Gets You through the Night: A Story of Sheherezade and the Arabian Entertainments." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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