Friday, November 09, 2007

biographical anxiety

[Left: The Worrier, London statue]

So I spent an hour and a half in my office at Our Fair University today, putting together my book orders for the spring term & letting myself be distracted by jocular & very pleasant conversations with colleagues, students, & various persons of interest. And I got those little buggers in to the bookstore, & for once well in advance of the deadline. I had one pretty scary moment, though (and those who know me well know that behind my blustering Archambaldian exterior I'm really a mass of fears & neuroses), when I showed a colleague I like & admire very much my booklist for the biography grad seminar & asked "If you were one of our grads, would you take this class?"

"Sure, it looks great," he immediately replied. "But I can see why you're worried about the class making." ("Making" the enrollment threshold, that is – and I hadn't been worried before he said that, but by God I was now...) "After all, they think of literature & theory, but they don't really think of biography as... you know... serious."

I cited Daniel Green at The Reading Experience and Richard Prouty at One-Way Street the other day as having written "interesting" things about biography. Probably more accurate to say "troubling" things, so far as my own investment in the genre goes. Green writes
only through biography do some critics reach an audience at all and do some writers receive any public attention at all. Biographies are the closest thing to long-form criticism published by most presses, and the closest most readers of newspaper and magazine reviews ever get to extended consideration of even the most famous writers. But if most biographies wind up having only "scant bearing on the literature," it's hard to see why we need them. Successive biographies of the same usual suspects, each claiming to be the new "standard life" are hardly a good substitute for real criticism.
Prouty is a deal harsher:
Biographies are interruptions in my normal reading. I prefer the fiction to the author most every time. If a writer's biography is more interesting than his or her works, I get suspicious. Even well-written, engaging biographies have limited readerly appeal. They tend to be really long with highly predictable plot structures: birth, early discovery of genius, development of first great work, big personal crisis, development of first not so great work, another personal crisis, second great work, a period of cruising on their reputation, health crisis, bitter and useless old age, death.... Biography is considered kind of a low skill in literary studies, primarily because they can sometimes read like they're a research notes dump rather than a thoughtful examination of a life and its work.
It's that last sentence, particularly the "low skill in literary studies" bit, that hurts. It sets off all kinds of career-oriented alarm bells in my little head – have I committed academic suicide by devoting almost a decade to this damned book? Will they laugh at me behind my back at the MLA & the MSA: "Heh, heh, while I was building an immense edifice of intellectual history tracing the rise & decline of the notion of aesthetic autonomy from Shaftesbury to Silliman, & while you were teasing out how Slavoj Zizek's Lacanian Hegelianism works to revise Laclau & Mouffe, that poor schmuck was writing a storybook!"?

So while I was getting into an epic 3-way comments-box pissing match over at Incertus yesterday over the academic & aesthetic status of the emerging genre of "Creative Nonfiction," my inner shlimazl was moaning (or kvetching maybe, but I don't know from Yiddish) "Oh, but who's being marginalized more? When's the last time you saw a job in the MLA Joblist for a 'biographer or scholar of biography'? I'll never get any respect now..."

But there's no help for it at this point. At least you, gentle readers & ungentle, could salve the ignominy of my intellectual self-immolation by purchasing some gift copies of The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (guaranteed tastily readable, tho possibly intellectual quite-low-calory) for Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, & Saturnalia. I have a PDF of the dust jacket, & it would look quite nice on a coffee table in a room with a rust & teal color scheme.

4 comments:

Paul Naylor said...

Hey Professor Fidget -- I, for one, am waiting impatiently for your LZ bio -- for both its content and form. I love biographies, particularly those written by smart people with true expertise, like you. At this stage of my life, I'd rather have hives than read about Zizek's Lacanian Hegelianism (most likely because it's something I wouldve written about myself a decade ago), so bring on the bios!

Paul

SJ said...

I'm buying your book, and if I have to graduate before being able to take a lit (vs. workshop) class of yours, I'm going to be sad, so I certainly hope it "makes" no matter what books end up on order. But I hadn't really worried about that before, because I feel that there is a v. healthy level of interest in it among my peers. So, in summary form, my comment goes like this: I, for one, am buying your book and taking your class and v. excited to do both.

Amy said...

"while I was building an immense edifice of intellectual history tracing the rise & decline of the notion of aesthetic autonomy from Shaftesbury to Silliman, & while you were teasing out how Slavoj Zizek's Lacanian Hegelianism works to revise Laclau & Mouffe, that poor schmuck was writing a storybook"

Try to say that three times fast. :-)

E. M. Selinger said...

"Laclau and Mouffe"?

Sounds like the name of a French law firm in some Jack Benny farce!

More seriously, you haven't committed academic suicide. Quite the contrary; you've done a project worth doing, which is more than one can say of 94% of academic scholarly production, at least in our field.

'Nuff said.