Monday, November 22, 2010

How Long Should a Biography Be?

So, in a comment to my earlier post about the welcome arrival of the newly restored complete edition ('Biographer's Cut'?) of S. T. Joshi's two-volume biography of H. P. Lovecraft,* David Bratman expressed incredulity that, having earlier read the original edition of this book, there could possibly be more remaining to be said about Lovecraft, much less 150,000+ words' worth. David's response I think raises an interesting point: how long shd a biography be?

The answer, I think, depends on how important you think the subject of the biography is. If, for example, you think Tolkien is an interesting but not major figure, then a book like Carpenter's biography (which manages to cover eighty years in less than three hundred pages) is about right. If, on the other hand, you think Tolkien is the Author of the Century, or at the very least one of the most important writers of his time, then the 2298 pages of Wayne & Christina's J. R. R. TOLKIEN COMPANION & GUIDE is manna from above. The same, I think applies for collected letters. Modest volumes of some 300 to 400 pages seemed about right for C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. T. a few years after their deaths (i.e., the 1966 LETTERS OF C. S. LEWIS ed. by Warnie** and the 1981 Carpenter/Christopher edition of LETTERS OF JRRT), whereas now Lewis is represented by the three-volume COLLECTED LETTERS (just shy of four thousand pages) and a similar collection cd no doubt be put together of Tolkien's correspondence.

HPL himself got what seemed the full treatment relatively early on, in the form of a huge five-vol. set (with each volume clocking in at around 400 pages). But even this was highly selective, extracted from Lovecraft's epistolary logorrhea and representing only about 5% of the surviving letters (which in turn represents about one-fifth of all the letters he actually wrote). And it cd be justified by the fact that in addition to his fiction Lovecraft was just as important as a behind-the-scenes influence, encouraging younger (Barlow, Howard, Bloch, Derleth, &c) &/or better (Smith, Leiber) writers. More recently, Lovecraft studies has seen the release of single-correspondence collections -- for example, all his letters to Kuttner, or Derleth, or Barlow, each in its own volume. Most of these were sold in tiny editions from small presses, but still collectively they're an enormously valuable primary source for any Lovecraft scholar; Tolkien scholars can, for now, only dream of such treasures.

The best piece I've ever seen about matching the length of biography to the relative importance of the author came in the Introduction to Norman Page's biography of A. E. Housman [1983], which in fact I bought because in skimming it I was so impressed by his argument. Page argues that only a few major figures deserve the full-scale treatment, while secondary figures, like Housman, are best served by shorter, less exhaustive books. As a example, gives a paragraph describing the kind of shoes Housman always wore, then follows this up by saying that every word in that paragraph is true, but none of it is worth knowing -- hence, for the rest of his book he avoids such trivia.

So, in the end it's a circular question. In some cases (e.g., Jane Austen), the relative lack of information will hold the biographies down to a certain length. In others, reticence on the part of the authors & their estates (e.g., T. S. Eliot) will do the same, at least for years and years after their deaths. But in some cases, because of the enthusiasm of the audience, we'll get massive amounts of information, whether their subjects are worth it or not.*** It'll be a boon for those interested in the subject, and those not interested can just ignore it. That makes it a win-win situation for all concerned. Except, perhaps, the trees.

--John R.

*rather oddly titled 'I AM PROVIDENCE' -- which wd have come as a bit of a surprise to HPL's fellow citizens of that Rhode Island town, most of whom never heard of him.
**although what was published was entirely re-edited by Christopher Derrick, a fact unknown to the public for several decades.
***for example, is Dorothy L. Sayers really worth a five-volume set of collected letters, which is roughly equivalent to the treatment Virginia Woolf got? The letters' publisher didn't think so, bailing on the project mid-way through, so that the latter volumes had to be published by other means


Extollager said...

Lovecraft inspires a completist or near-completist fascination with readers. I wonder about this. My hunch is that, in many cases, the readers are people who were fascinated by HPL's fiction when they first discovered it in their teens. They probably got hold of things such as L. Sprague de Camp's biography and were captivated by HPL as a "character." As the years pass, the stories, perhaps, do not really hold up all that well (though the Lovecraftians would deny that), and the center of interest really becomes transferred to the man himself. That interest is continually fed by the writings of people who knew him or have read even more by and about him than one has oneself. Only the most dedicated Lovecraftians ever come to the end of all the memoirs, letters, studies, etc.

I think an ingredient here, usually not recognized, is coziness! Lovecraft is something of a Mr. Badger type, and I think his fans like thinking of him writing away in his room, writing the stories and also all those letters. Perhaps too they feel some pity for him although they might deny that, too. But his estranged wife believed that the key to his life was his great loneliness.

As for his stories, I wonder if there isn't a fascination of a peculiar sort there: namely, the sense that he "could have written" some great story but never really did. I think that sometimes such artists are more magnetizing than the ones who truly create a masterpiece.

I wonder if the best story in the spirit of the Cthulhu mythos, thought it is free of references to Yog-Sothoth and the Necronomicon, is Fritz Leiber's "A Bit of the Dark World." Recently rereading it, I found it pretty creepy in a way that HPL's own stories don't manage to be.

Magister said...

Amory's Dunsany biography is way too short. He could at least have mentioned Dunsany's full name and date of birth.

Extollager: Yes, we do deny that, and he wrote several great stories. If you don't find HPL creepy, then fine; don't try to speak for me or anyone else.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Extollager

As per the 'could have written', I think this is a major factor in some writers' reputations, but not Lovecraft's. That is, I think the people who truly admire Lovecraft DO think he wrote great stories. By contrast, it's often said of Chesterton that he was 'a master without a masterpiece'. Dunsany suffers something of the same fate in that while he was, I wd argue, the single greatest writer of fantasy short stories in English, he never wrote a wholly successful novel (fantasy or otherwise), which has unfairly limited his audience.

re. the Leiber story, I don't think I've read this one. Searching my shelves, I find I do have a copy (in the old paperback HEROES & HORRORS), so this will have to go on my to-read pile.


Dear Magister: Yes, the Amory book is deeply flawed, but it's better than no biography at all. One problem is that he didn't do much research. The family history near the beginning came from a document a member of the family had once drawn up (one of Dunsany's aunts, I think), while for the rest he essentially recast Dunsany's three autobiographies into third person. There's very little for the final years of D's life, those that followed his third autobiography, except for what Amory took from that little memoir of Dunsany's final trips to America by Hazel Littlefield Smith. Dunsany is a major figure who deserves a full-scale biography (the Carpenter treatment at least), but he's not likely to get it anytime soon, so far as I can tell. It's typical of how he's fallen through the cracks that the NCBEL listed him as a 19th century dramatist (and hence excluded him from the 20th century volume), when he first book (short stories, not plays) wasn't published until 1905.

--I really am going to have to dig out my Dunsany dissertation and see about posting it.

re. the quote "If you don't find HPL creepy, then fine; don't try to speak for me or anyone else."

That's probably a major factor holding me back is that while M. R. James and John Bellairs give me the willies if I read them at night, and Poe can still get under my skin, I've never been scared by anything in any of HPL's tales. So they work for me more as fantasies than horror, which may be why I rate the Dunsanian/Dreamlands material so high.


Extollager said...

Lovecraft's greatest stories are flawed by mismanagement of plot, errors of taste, and so on. The example I always trot out is from "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." It is obviously that Lovecraft lavished great care on this story. It is surely one of the works in which he was aiming to raise the art of the weird tale far above that of pulp fiction -- and he largely succeeds. And yet there's the scene in which the narrator talks with an aged resident of the eerie town, who sees something horrible behind the narrator, and Lovecraft phonetically spells out the man's scream. One just can't imagine Algernon Blackwood doing that in "The Willows" (which has its own flaw, unfortunately, when the two canoeists start talking occultism). Lovecraft never quite wrote the story that, we feel, was in him to write, and I really suspect that is part of his appeal for readers, because our imaginations are teased.

Do you know Burrage's "One Who Saw"? It's in that large Penguin anthology of ghost stories edited by Cuddon around 1985. That seemed pretty effective to me.

Gina said...

"Is Dorothy L. Sayers really worth a five-volume set of collected letters?"

Indeed she is. Her letters are wonderful -- some of the best I've ever read -- no matter what the publisher thought.