Category Archives: writers considered not in depth, but as exemplars (for good or bad) of the craft

“the business of the biographer”

 

His domestick habits, so far as they are known, were those of a severe student. He drank little strong drink of any kind, and fed without excess in quantity, and in his earlier years without delicacy of choice. In his youth he studied late at night; but afterwards changed his hours, and rested in bed from nine to four in the summer, and five in winter. The course of his day was best known after he was blind. When he first rose he heard a chapter in the Hebrew Bible, and then studied till twelve; then took some exercise for an hour; then dined; then plaid on the organ, and sung, or heard another sing; then studied to six; then entertained his visiters, till eight; then supped, and, after a pipe of tobacco and a glass of water, went to bed.

 

— Samuel Johnson, “Milton,” The Lives of the Poets

 

 

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Samuel Johnson, in a famous essay on biography, shows the importance of minute particulars: how they bring a person to life and create reader interest:

It is frequently objected to relations of particular lives, that they are not distinguished by any striking or wonderful vicissitudes. The scholar who passed his life among his books, the merchant who conducted only his own affairs, the priest whose sphere of action was not extended beyond that of his duty, are considered as no proper objects of public regard, however they might have excelled in their several stations, whatever might have been their learning, integrity, and piety. But this notion arises from false measures of excellence and dignity, and must be eradicated by considering that, in the esteem of uncorrupted reason, what is of most use is of most value.

It is, indeed, not improper to take honest advantages of prejudice, and to gain attention by a celebrated name; but the business of the biographer is often to pass slightly over those performances and incidents which produce vulgar greatness, to lead the thoughts into domestic privacies, and display the minute details of daily life, where exterior appendages are cast aside, and men excel each other only by prudence and by virtue. The account of Thuanus is, with great propriety, said by its author to have been written that it might lay open to posterity the private and familiar character of that man, cujus ingenium et candorem ex ipsius scriptis sunt olim semper miraturi, whose candour and genius will to the end of time be by his writings preserved in admiration.

There are many invisible circumstances which, whether we read as inquirers after natural or moral knowledge, whether we intend to enlarge our science or increase our virtue, are more important than public occurrences. Thus Salust, the great master of nature, has not forgot, in his account of Catiline, to remark that his walk has now gone quick, and again slow, as an indication of a mind revolving something with violent commotion. Thus the story of Melancthon affords a striking lecture on the value of time, by informing us that, when he made an appointment, he expected not only the hour but the minute to be fixed, that the day might not run out in the idleness of suspense; and all the plans and enterprises of De Wit are now of less importance to the world than that part of his personal character which represents him as careful of his health, and negligent of his life.

But biography has often been allotted to writers who seem very little acquainted with the nature of their task, or very negligent about the performance. They rarely afford any other account than might be collected from public papers, but imagine themselves writing a life when they exhibit a chronological series of actions or preferments; and so little regard the manners or behaviour of their heroes that more knowledge may be gained of a man’s real character, by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative, begun with his pedigree and ended with his funeral.

— Samuel Johnson, Rambler #60, October 13, 1750

 

 

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In his preface to Letters of Theodore Dreiser (1959), edited by Dressier scholar Robert H. Elias, Elias, who knew Dreiser personally, noted that letters “that simply record data, biographical or bibliographical, or that are primarily love letters” had been excluded. My former therapist, Ralph Colp, Jr., said up front, without hesitation, that this was a mistake, a serious omission. I agreed.

I happened once to mention to Dr. Colp the Penguin series of biographies: Brief Lives. I had purchased one of them. Dr. Colp said that a brief life leaving out most or many important details amounted to an insufficient biography. I realized that he was right.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2018

‘the wide effulgence of a summer noon”; the beauty of great writing

 

 

I suffered a near loss of vision. It was terrifying, but treatment seems to have restored my sight to its former state, or near to it.

I temporarily lost the ability to read. To celebrate my recovery, I have begun reading Samuel Johnson’s The Lives of the Poets, a work I have been intending to read.

I think reading gives me the greatest pleasure of all. Here is Johnson on the metaphysical poets:

Their attempts were always analytick; they broke every image into fragments and could no more represent by their slender conceits and laboured particularities, the prospects of nature or the scenes of life than he, who dissects a sun-beam with a prism, can exhibit the wide effulgence of a summer noon.” — “Cowley”

Like a biologist or physician examining a tissue under a microscope, I can detect great writing (and tell good from mediocre or bad); can recognize, appreciate, and delight in power and subtlety of exposition, when happily seen, from a sentence or two.

Reading gives me the greatest pleasure imaginable. The above sentence shows why Samuel Johnson is so admired and why he has few rivals as a writer of expository prose.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  November 4, 2018

 

 

Tom Wolfe

 

 

re:

“Tom Wolfe, Author of ‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘Bonfire of the Vanities,’ Dies”

By Deirdre Carmody and William Grimes

The New York Times

May 15, 2018

 

 

 

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An obituary of journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe (1930-2018) was published in today’s New York Times.

A few thoughts of my own about Wolfe.

I am not that qualified to comment. I was never a big fan his and am not that well acquainted with his works. But, I do know something about writing, and I would like to comment from that angle.

The Times obituary notes: “In his use of novelistic techniques in his nonfiction, Mr. Wolfe, beginning in the 1960s, helped create the enormously influential hybrid known as the New Journalism.” It goes on to say, about Wolfe’s best-selling novel (his first) The Bonfire of the Vanities:

Although a runaway best seller, “Bonfire” divided critics into two camps: those who praised its author as a worthy heir of his fictional idols Balzac, Zola, Dickens and Dreiser, and those who dismissed the book as clever journalism, a charge that would dog him throughout his fictional career. [italics added] …

Mr. Wolfe’s fictional ambitions and commercial success earned him enemies — big ones.

“Extraordinarily good writing forces one to contemplate the uncomfortable possibility that Tom Wolfe might yet be seen as our best writer,” Norman Mailer wrote in The New York Review of Books. “How grateful one can feel then for his failures and his final inability to be great — his absence of truly large compass. There may even be an endemic inability to look into the depth of his characters with more than a consummate journalist’s eye.”

“Tom may be the hardest-working show-off the literary world has ever owned,” Mr. Mailer continued. “But now he will no longer belong to us. (If indeed he ever did!) He lives in the King Kong Kingdom of the Mega-bestsellers — he is already a Media Immortal. He has married his large talent to real money and very few can do that or allow themselves to do that.”

Mr. Mailer’s sentiments were echoed by John Updike and John Irving.

 

 

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I read The Bonfire of the Vanities. I was caught up in it at first, but by the end was getting bored. Wolfe’s characters are stock figures. They are completely uninteresting. They have no humanity. They do not come alive.

A character like Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities has no depth or personality. He is meant to merely represent a stereotype, and the same is true of other characters in the book, such as the black youth injured in an auto accident for which McCoy is arrested and a reporter for the New York Post type tabloid. The novel left me feeling, by the end, profoundly unsatisfied and empty.

Wolfe is decidedly not worthy of comparisons to Balzac, Zola, Dickens, or Dreiser, all of whom I have read (though, in the case of Zola, not as much as I would like to have) and admire greatly.

The Times obituary states that “Mr. Wolfe became one of the standard-bearers of the New Journalism, along with Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion and others.” It is my opinion that most of them — with the exception of Gay Talese — were seriously overrated. (Breslin could not write.) The reason I would qualify this statement of mine with regard to Gay Talese is that Talese — unlike, say, Didion, and Wolfe — never had pretensions to be anything but a journalist. And, Talese’s nonfiction works were well researched and well written.

The Times obituary states:

Every morning [Wolfe] dressed in one of his signature outfits — a silk jacket, say, and double-breasted white vest, shirt, tie, pleated pants, red-and-white socks and white shoes — and sat down at his typewriter. Every day he set himself a quota of 10 pages, triple-spaced. If he finished in three hours, he was done for the day.

“If it takes me 12 hours, that’s too bad, I’ve got to do it,” he told George Plimpton in a 1991 interview for The Paris Review.

This kind of dedication to writing is impressive. It reminds me of Anthony Trollope, who, as he famously noted in his autobiography, had to do his “allotment” of pages every day. Wolfe’s daily writing routine seems to be what would amount to very good advice for would be writers.

“There is this about Tom,” Byron Dobell, Wolfe’s editor at Esquire magazine, is quoted in the Times obituary as saying. “He has this unique gift of language that sets him apart as Tom Wolfe. It is full of hyperbole; it is brilliant; it is funny, and he has a wonderful ear for how people look and feel. He has a gift of fluency that pours out of him the way Balzac had it.”

Balzac did not have the “gift of fluency.” Like Dreiser, he wrote clumsily (but not as badly as Dreiser did). I love Balzac, but not for his style. And, incidentally, Balzac is the polar opposite of Wolfe, in that his characters are completely believable, unforgettable, totally human. I never cared for Tom Wolfe.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 16, 2018