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What Samuel Johnson Knew

Reading Freya Johnston's London Review of Books review of The Literary Criticism of Samuel Johnson: Forms of Artistry and Thought, by Philip Smallwood, I was delighted to see the following:


"Johnson's creative instincts coincided with his critical attitudes in a deep-seated resistance to systems -- moral, philosophical, literary, historical -- and in a related awareness of the confusing variety of life, a sense of its arbitrariness and uncertainty, and of how little of it can ever by determined by our own plans. Hence, in part, his love of what he sometimes called 'secret history'. In the Rambler he argued that biography . . . . must be anecdotal so that we are able to understand its subjects as people close to ourselves; literary criticism, in turn, must remain close to biography so that we can understand its origins in human ambition and human fallibility . . ."


Academic critics, who are overwhelmingly and irritatingly wedded to systems and theories, fail to understand that "the confusing variety of life" and "human ambition and human fallibility" are the true concerns of biography. The urge to write reviews intended to showcase the writer's cleverness in theory creation is simply vanity, an intellectual pirouette that fails to illuminate the subject and often does a grave injustice to the author of the book.

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On Criticism

I am no stranger to published criticism, either as the author or subject of it. (I wrote art reviews for many years, and my books have been widely reviewed.) Hardly a day goes by when I'm not reading reviews in the New York Review of Books, the TLS, the London Review of Books, and other publications. My remarks in this blog post are the result of a lifetime of thinking about criticism—how it is generally practiced, what causes it to read the way it does, and why fair-mindedness is on the side of the angels.


Faced with a work of art or a book, a critic's impulse is generally to compare it—perhaps to the creator's previous work or to the works of others, or more dubiously, to a notion in the critic's mind. (I was often guilty of this in my youthful art reviews.)


Whether as a result of editorial pressure, the critic's personality, or both, the tone of reviews is often aggressive. Rather than addressing the value of the creator's actual work, the critic begins by complaining that it doesn't adhere to the critic's notion of the correct way of proceeding. Why did the sculptor work on such a small scale? Why didn't the biographer employ a thematic format?


Sadly, reviewing is widely regarded as a form of competitive sport. You don't get points for evenhandedness or effusiveness, or even for clarity. All too often it seems that the goal is to become a prosecuting attorney, to find the holes in the witness's testimony and demonstrate your superior wisdom. As you "prove" the weakness of the creator's "case," you pounce on the smallest error as proof that it indicates wholesale sloppiness.


The glory of this approach is that is allows the critic to propound a new theory, ever so much cleverer than the creator's, and thereby to demonstrate the critic's standing as a public intellectual. The creator's work thus becomes merely an elevator, a device that boosts the critic's own career. I find this approach highly objectionable.


A fair-minded critic begins by finding an aspect of the work to praise. Surely there is some quality that honestly can be said to be worthy, or at least valid. This critic also attempts to understand what the creator was trying to do, whether or not it appears successful, and grants that there are many ways to achieve significant results—not necessarily the one the critic might have chosen.


The fair-minded book critic devotes ample space to discussing the contents of the actual work and does not appear to present information gleaned from the text as if it were prior knowledge on the critic's part. Rather than pursuing a "gotcha" vendetta against the author for any factual or interpretive errors, the critic aims to enlarge the knowledge base of readers of the review. By taking the high ground, a critic can write even a largely negative review in such a way that she neither glorifies her own acuity nor disparages the intelligence of the author, while providing readers with information that enlarges their view of the world.


© Cathy Curtis 2024

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Biographical subjects under the microscope...or not.

I keep thinking about the gulf between what the academy deems appropriate in a biography and what I care about as a biographer.


Academics follow a certain protocol. Just as scientists peering through a microscope literally look down on the material on the slide, academics always retain a superior position to the subject under dissection, determining the value of a subject's work by slotting it into specific categories. That's why academics value only biographies organized thematically, so that this structure—imposed in response to currently fashionable theories—can be seen as more important than the messy factuality of the life. Academics also believe it is their job to state an opinion about every facet of the work and to vigorously question any autobiographical remark of the subject that does not fit with their own sense of likely and unlikely events.


I approach my subjects in a completely different way. I seek to know what it was like to be them—to think their thoughts (as related in letters and journal entries) and to understand how their upbringing and subsequent life events shaped their view of the world and influenced their work. As far as I am concerned, the best way to organize a biography is to emphasize the narrative of the life, which generally means moving in a chronological direction. Of course that does not mean including dull or inconsequential details; a biographer needs to exercise a shaping hand in determining what facts are important.


But I am not writing to prove something about my subjects, or to demonstrate how cleverly I can refute their claims or dismiss some of their efforts. In other words: it's not about me. I do not stand above my subjects; I try to stand alongside them. I am aware that a subject's memory can be colored by emotion and stress, and still be true to the person's experience. I express my own opinions only when I feel strongly about them. (Because I am writing the first, or first comprehensive, life of this person, I have no need to quarrel with previous biographers; I relegate any disagreements with other published sources to the endnotes, where I know only specialists will see them.)


It's a question of humility, really. I am writing about this life because it is compelling and because it belongs to someone whose work I admire. My goal is to introduce others to this person and her work. I try to accomplish this goal as gracefully as I can, but in the end, what matters is readers' ability to connect with my subject—to appreciate her, to understand her world, and to close the book with a sense of how complicated a creative life can be.


© Cathy Curtis 2024




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Should Biographers Ever Step Out Front in Their Books?

The other day, trying to catch up with a backlog of London Review of Books issues, I noticed an ad for Hermione Lee's Lorna Sage Memorial Lecture last summer, "Giving Oneself Away: Biographical Experiences." Hoping that it had been videotaped, I searched online but couldn't find a trace of it. Still, Dame Hermione's topic called out to me.


When I was a journalist, one of the cardinal rules was never to become the subject of your stories. You were there to observe and question others, not as a participant in the published piece. The New Journalism —pursued primarily in magazines — had removed this straitjacket decades earlier, but daily newspapers remained overwhelmingly true to the original stipulation.


Similarly, among the few rules widely followed in biography is the injunction never to become a character in your own book and to make only the most sparing use of the first person pronoun. This always made sense to me. The only time I made a brief entrance, in my biography of Grace Hartigan, was the brief description of my interview with her decades earlier. It would have seemed too coy to hide behind the words "a journalist" and consign my identity to an endnote.


Of course, every biographer's "I" is imprinted all over her book in the details she has chosen and the point of view she expresses. But there is no need to trot out the first person. In a sentence like "This was proof of her tendency to overrate the people she loved," it's obvious that the opinion is the author's. Biographies written by academics are more apt to include first-person statements to underline a remark (e.g., "I believe this version was in fact not submitted for publication"). I think this is a function of the way academics view biography as a means of promulgating their own thesis about the subject rather than simply as a narrative of the life.


In recent years there has been a movement toward biographies that resemble fiction, with invented episodes and even invented dialogue — two inadmissible features of standard biography. I realize that it is very difficult to write about people who have left no written record, whether because their lives predated written records or because they were enslaved or otherwise denied the ability to speak up for themselves. But I still feel that the author either must find another workaround for such lives or write historical fiction instead.


Another newly popular wrinkle is the biographical approach that mingles aspects of the writer's own life with that of her subject. It's one thing to explain (in a note or preface) how you came to write your book; such information can help create a bond with readers. But I believe in a clearcut distinction between biography and memoir. Yoking your (usually, unhappy) personal history to the life of a well-known person is generally little more than an attempt to evoke sympathy. The genre of memoirs by the children of famous people exists in a liminal space that so often tells us too much about the author and not enough about the Famous Person without whom there likely would have been no publisher's contract.


© Cathy Curtis 2024


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Fighting the Urge to Compete with Your Subject

The competitive spirit can emerge in unexpected places. Writing the life of a noteworthy author or artist has spurred some biographers to attempt to meet their subjects on their own turf by trying to imitate their distinctive style or intellectual approach, or by wallowing in a kind of fake poetry intended to evoke the experience of seeing the work. Some critics even fault biographers whose writing (in the critic's opinion) fails to reflect the lofty standards of their subjects.


I believe that these attempts on the part of biographers are misplaced—awkward or misleading at best, laughable at worst. They not only fail to help readers understand the work but also make a poor case for our own writerly strengths. As biographers we belong to the world of nonfiction, approaching our task as intelligent and observant handmaidens to history as we follow the trajectory of a life and describe the work in order to clarify its significant features.


Restraint is the better part of valor in biography. We do best to adopt a clear and unshowy writing style reflecting our own considered approach to the material, the better to allow the virtues of our subjects' work to emerge. This requires a certain balance between self-effacement and personal engagement. We are not trying to prove that we are as clever as our subjects. Rather, we leave our mark in the choices we've made in choosing and organizing the material to retain readers' interest and in the discernment that allows us to form a reasonably charitable opinion of our subject's virtues and faults, both as human beings and as creative individuals.


We are not novelists, philosophers, pundits, or poets. But we operate in our own special world of documented truths, which require no small amount of skill to discover, describe, and evaluate in a nuanced way. Let us be celebrated for that.


© Cathy Curtis 2023


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Biographies are about the whole person, not just the work

I recently spoke with a friend of the artist Nell Blaine, whose biography I wrote. Kindly loaned to me, the friend's letters from Nell had offered a valuable indication of her temperament and the stresses of her daily life at that time. The friend, whom I will call C., mentioned that she had come across additional letters from Nell. Although this cache was discovered too late to help me write my book, I suggested that she might donate the letters to one of Nell's archives, at Harvard and the Archives of American Art.


C., who is herself an artist, said that she didn't see the point of doing that, because the letters are not about Nell's art. I tried to explain that a letter doesn't need to be about a subject's work to be valuable. As a biographer, I know that there is so much more to be fathomed from the correspondence and journals of a creative person than simply how the work was conceived and made. Biographies (as opposed to critical studies) are necessarily about the whole person, not only about the nature of their accomplishments. Any piece of reliable information about the person's life — including her expectations, disappointments, worries, loves, jealousies, prejudices, political views, and financial affairs — is important when you are trying to deduce the complex network of forces that led her to produce a particular body of work while dealing with the rest of her life. But C. was adament; she would probably throw out all of this correspondence.


I suppose there will always be a huge gap between people (including many academics) who want to learn only about the work and those who also wonder about the inner life of the person who made it.


© Cathy Curtis 2023

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Older Women, Younger Women, and Second-Wave Feminism

I've come to the conclusion that young women today seem to think that all women (or even all educated women) in the late twentieth century took their cue from the books and essays written by 1970s-era feminists. Not true! I say.


I was born in the middle of the twentieth century. As a young woman, I read Mademoiselle magazine, which offered interesting short stories (by major writers of the day) as well as tips about dating, diets, and grooming, photographs of smiling models in pretty clothes, and other content appealing to my cohort. Glamour lacked the short stories, but the features were similarly pitched to young women anxious to look like a "Do" instead of a "Don't." I was dimly aware of Ms. magazine, but it never occurred to me that I should read it.


Similarly, the notion that there was a problem with studying only the work of "dead white men" had barely penetrated my world. My college studies enshrined their work, and I was thrilled to encounter their ideas. In grad school, I enjoyed learning about the few women artists known to be active in the seventeenth century (my period of specialization), but that did not mean I was less interested in the work of the Great Men.


For us, as for our mothers' generation, nervously waiting for a man's call on a landline phone was a near-universal experience, because romantic relationships were so fraught yet so crucial to one's future. Marriage remained an important—for some, the only important—goal. I did not question this or fight against it; it was simply the way of the world.


In this social climate, it was not unusual even for an accomplished twentieth-century woman to be indifferent, even hostile, to the new voices of feminism. (Hostile? Consider Joan Didion's essay on the movement, published in The New York Times in 1972: The movement's theorists "had invented a class; now they had only to make that class conscious." The result was writing in which "we have been hearing the wishful voices of . . . perpetual adolescents, the voices of women scarred by resentment, not of their class position as women but at the failure of their childhood expectations and misapprehensions." Didion's conclusion: "the women's movement is no longer a cause but a symptom.")


The fact is, women seriously involved with the second wave remained a minority for many, many years. There was no Internet, after all, and no social media—no large-scale way of promulgating feminist beliefs—and mainstream media was most likely to caricature feminist positions Younger editors, academics, and other people whose job is to consider the merits of biographies need to consider that the givens in their lives were not necessarily the givens in ours.


© Cathy Curtis 2023

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The Claim that a Biography Fails to Make Readers ‘Know’ Its Subject

Critics too often complain that a detailed, life-spanning biography with copious firsthand information (from diaries, letters, other published or unpublished writing) has nonetheless failed to make the subject known. I've come to believe that these naysayers lack an understanding of biography as a genre and fail to realize the impossibility of their expectations.


Consider your own friends and family. Can you truly say, even if you have known them for many decades, that you fully understand them? An aspect of being human is the essential "unknowableness" of any other person—or even of your own motivations and deepest feelings, desires, etc. The millions of fleeting impressions in a person's brain cannot be fathomed by anyone else. And yet we do claim to know people close to us, in the sense of anticipating what they will say or do and finding that what they have said or done to be in line with our knowledge of them.


A biographer who has access to hundreds, even thousands of pieces of firsthand documentation—like Jackie Wullschläger, author of Monet: The Restless Vision, who drew on more than 3,000 of the artist's letters—obviously still cannot access her subject's brain. But it is possible to demonstrate what the person believed, and loved and hated, and failed to understand, and worried about, and hoped to do, and regretted that they had done, and so forth. By illuminating these things, the biographer allows the reader to know the person, insofar as that can be done.


However, I do not believe that it is necessary, or even desirable, for a biographer to wrap up all these observations into a tidy conclusion or theory that purports to "explain" her subject. People are so complex that any effort to stuff them into a conceptual box is doomed to failure. I say, let the facts speak for themselves, and allow the reader to form her own notion of who the person was—a form of  "knowing" that actually will be somewhat different for every reader, because each of them will process the information in a way unique to her own power of understanding.


In the words of Clare Carlyle, author of the strikingly original new biography, The Marriage Question: The Double Life of George Eliot, "Writing a person's life means living with them intimately, struggling to understand them, wondering how far they can be trusted, dealing with the ways they resist, annoy, disappoint, challenge, and elude you."


© Cathy Curtis 2023


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Two Approaches to Literary Biography

Two approaches? Of course, there are as many ways to write a biography as there are biographers. I am addressing the broad differences between a literary biography written by an academic who has many spent years studying and forming theories about her subject and a literary biography written by a non-academic (often, a journalist) whose previous engagement with the work is simply as a deeply appreciative reader.


The problem is that academics inevitably judge all biographies by their own standards. A biography lacking a strong central theory about the subject is believed to be virtually worthless, and chronological organization is considered far inferior to a topical approach in which chapters each deal with a particular theme.


I can't speak for all non-academic biographers, of course, but I never start (or conclude) with a theory or a concept. My books are always the first comprehensive biographies of my subjects; their lives are fascinating new territories to explore. When I begin researching, my mind is open. I am simply collecting data. As I write, I am guided solely by the need to organize the wealth of material I have discovered in a readable form—but without attempting to superimpose some concept of my own. I know that I will tend to support my subject when thorny issues arise, though I will feel free to question any self-reported activities and statements if—and that's a big "if"—I have factual evidence to the contrary. Just because something sounds odd or surprising does not mean it did not happen, especially when dealing with distant times and unique circumstances.


As a former journalist, I am primarily interested in reporting the accretion of details about a person that forms a narrative of her life. The only way to do this persuasively is to organize the book chronologically. My objective is to introduce readers to the range of my subject's work and the way it relates to her life, and to present that life in a beguiling way, so that my biography will be nearly as lively as a novel.


Since I am not a literary critic, I don't feel that it's my job to pronounce upon each work that I briefly describe—briefly, so as not to bog down the narrative—or to judge which works are her best. When something about a work begs to be criticized or celebrated, I do so; otherwise I quote contemporary reviews to give a sense of the way the book or play was received in its era.


It is always important to present a picture as complete as possible of the world the subject lived in, stopping short of including lengthy historical material that would halt the narrative flow—which is always a paramount concern when writing a biography for general readers. (I put some of these details in endnotes, but nowadays readers can easily find additional information online.) As corollary, I believe is a grievous error to expect lives lived at other times to conform to standards of behavior of the twenty-first century. While blatant mistreatment of another human being can never be condoned, we learn much more by trying to understand the past than by condemning it out of hand.


© Cathy Curtis 2023

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Choosing a biographical subject

When you think of all the people who have lived on our planet, or even the ones who have achieved some modicum of fame, it may seem that a biographer has a dazzling array of choices. In fact our choices are restricted in a number of ways.


Most obviously, there is little point in embarking on a biography of someone who has left few traces. Without a sizable number of surviving documents and news reports it's hard to see how a life can be reconstituted on paper. 


Then there are problems of access: the widow won't allow you to read the journals; the bulk of the correspondence is in the attic of someone who can't be bothered to unearth it; the subject's archive has embargoed the papers until 2060; none of the colleagues or relatives are willing to be interviewed. 


A biographer also needs to consider whether the life is sufficiently eventful, at least during the period of the subject's major achivements. While a great writer can make sitting in a room and thinking sound fascinating, most of us depend on the ebb and flow of life events—including shifting relationships with lovers, children, friends, and people in power—to make our narratives come alive. 


Another roadblock is the tyranny of trends in publishing. If you are writing about an obscure author whose books are out of print, it's highly unlikely that a trade publisher will accept your proposal, though you might have better luck with a university press. But if your forgotten author wrote about women or people of color in ways that are now considered offensive, you will have a hard time convincing an editor that the world needs to read about him—no matter how otherwise significant his books are, or how seriously you intend to discuss his failings.


If you choose to write about someone famous, the burden is on you to prove that you have a fresh angle, usually the result of a newly discovered trove of papers. Historical subjects require familiarity with current scholarship; specialized fields such as art demand a working knowledge of the language used by practitioners. 


Most discouraging is the roadblock that appears after you already have done a great deal of research but before you have secured a publishing contract: the publication of another book on your subject. Unless you can figure out a way to enlarge your topic or otherwise drastically alter your approach, the only thing you can do is move on.


© Cathy Curtis 2023

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