Saturday, May 6, 2017

Writing it all down: for the Beats, too much was never enough

Bill Morris at The Millions has had enough. His post Will you Beat Hagiographers Please Be Quiet Please (with its intentional double please), about the ongoing parade of films and books lionizing the beat generation, contains some valid points about the myth-making and the saint-making machinery of American popular culture. He notes, as well, the increasing trend toward what Joyce Carol Oates has called "pathography" -- that the facts of a creative individual's life are as important as his art, with an emphasis on dysfunctional detail -- in literary biography.

It's ironic that Morris would find this abundance of lurid, personal psychology unwarranted in the biographies of beat figures like Kerouac and Burroughs -- writers who seemingly suffered from logorrhea so much more than most in letters and journals and scribbled diaries and, finally, in books. Many of them wrote everything down and some, it seems, were impatient waiting for the ink to dry before turning their lives into literature.

Their personal lives, and the stories they fashioned from them, form a carnival ground of (in Oates's phrase) “dysfunction and disaster, illnesses and pratfalls, failed marriages and failed careers, alcoholism and breakdowns and outrageous conduct.” With the beats, it's all there on the blotted page, with the "artifice" of fiction very nearly removed from the "art" of the story. But learning more about a writer's life, Morris writes, doesn't count for nearly as much as the books themselves:

... Since we live in an age that’s obsessed with personalities and celebrities, it’s not surprising that so few readers are satisfied with loving a book and so many insist on knowing as much as possible about the person who wrote it. While this appetite has inspired literary biographers to produce a long shelf of pathographies and other monstrosities – does the world really need Norman Sherry’s three-volume biography of Graham Greene? – it has also resulted in some well researched and finely written literary biographies that did what such exercises do at their best: they led readers back to the subject’s books.

Among these I would include Blake Bailey’s recent biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever and, strangely enough, Ann Charters’s thorough and balanced 1973 bio of Kerouac. In her introduction, Charters wrote insightfully, if a bit clunkily: “The value of Kerouac’s life is what he did, how he acted. And what he did, was that he wrote. I tried to arrange the incidents of his life to show that he was a writer first, and a mythologized figure afterward. Kerouac’s writing counts as much as his life.”

I would argue that his writing counts more than his life, much more. Eventually Charters seemed to come around to my way of thinking. In 1995, after she’d edited two fat volumes, Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940-1956 and The Portable Jack Kerouac, I interviewed her for a newspaper article. “I wanted (the book of letters) to be a biography in Jack’s own words,” she told me. “His life is in his books, but on the other hand the most essential thing is missing from those novels. What he tells you in the letters is that the most important thing in his life is writing.”

At the time The Gap was using Kerouac’s image – and images of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and other ’50s icons – to sell its khaki pants. In the face of such shameless hucksterism, Charters’s insistence on the importance of Kerouac’s writing seemed both quaint and heroic to me. It still does today, as the hagiographers keep bombarding us with abominations like One Fast Move or I’m Gone and Howl and A Man Within. ...

Morris is half right. Today's hot-house atmosphere of celebrity and promotion is a blurry mix of authenticity and the artificial. Some would argue rightly everything in ad-land is all packaging. But so what? Morris's own griping about the commercialization of Kerouac seems quaint itself this late in the advertising game -- the appropriation of Kerouac's image doesn't make what he wrote less "authentic," it only questions the decisions of his estate. If fans find this kind of legend-buffing intriguing, it may be that the link between beat writers and beat writing comes close to solving the mysterious alchemy between personality and page. And that leads readers back to the words themselves -- which is Morris's basic starting point.

For many readers the movement's legacy of writing-it-all-down is a key to finding the raw material of fiction in real life. For fans, too, beat literature can seem a kind of romantic ideal, opening the gates to self-expression and revelation. Then the trick, of course, is to find a public outlet, and the internet seems to be obliterating that hurdle more rapidly every day. We can all make messes of our lives, and we now have the means to tell everyone -- friends and complete strangers -- about it.

Making real and discernible art out of a messy and careening life takes perception and some amount of craft, however, and there a writer is on his own without a net. There is a simple way past the image-crafting and the cults of personality, the flood of films and the biographer's "pathography." Writers like Morris suggest it, if a bit over-wrought, in his essay: it used to be called "letting the words speak for themselves."

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