One of Blake Bailey’s few appearances on YouTube has him mentioning that, before becoming a literary biographer, he was writing novels that couldn’t make it out the door until his would-be agent pointed toward the success he’d had with some nonfiction pieces and suggested that he try writing a book of nonfiction—“pick a topic”—and it sounds like he was pretty quick to consider Richard Yates, whose work he’d celebrated in college, and who at this point (I figure this it’s the mid-‘90s?) was completely out of print.
Which at first glance seems like a huge cultural oversight.
But it squares with the fact that throughout his career Yates was, as the novelist Richard Ford put it, regarded among writers as like a “secret handshake”; a writer’s writer; he never got the recognition of a Vonnegut, Styron, Mailer—however wrongly—and Bailey wondered why.
And so he gets to work.
A powerful good biography takes shape over the next few years and comes out to lotsa praise and Bailey the struggling novelist seems to’ve found his niche:
He’s a great literary biographer.
But let’s go back to this matter of his having written a few novels at the outset of his career. Even if he’s right in saying that they were bad. Because what I think it suggests is that, having forged his writing skills in a medium that’s focused on entertainment, on artistry, as opposed to the more straightforward communicative avenues of journalism or academe or advertising, Bailey came to maturity on the page with an appreciation of the core idea that any would-be novelist needs to appreciate if they’re gonna make it (Yates himself makes a fist about it in the biography) which is that your goal here is to entertain. You can be an artist about it yes but there’s also a commercial or social interaction going on between writer and reader whereby they, the reader, are gonna part ways with their money and time in order to read whatever you put down on paper and thus your job, your duty as either a commercial entertainer or simply as a host, is to make sure that this reader is comfortable and cared for. That they aren’t just being informed on a topic, but pulled inside of it.
And while I’m sure it’s the case that most authors of military or literary or sports biographies are interested in providing that kind of immersive entertaining experience, I’m also thinking—as a casual reader who’s gobbled just a few dozen of these books in his life—that the average writer of biography is more likely to prioritize the exposure of facts, and the stringing-together of those facts into a narrative.
I think that’s the heart of what a biographer’s trying to do.
Only after that central (enormous) task does the average biographer I think concern themselves with what you might call the more writerly concerns of pace and concision and humor and charm and the rest of it—the literary devices that breed entertainment, in other words. Which makes sense. And if you’re flying all over the country and reading tens of thousands of pages to string this narrative together it makes sense that your foremost concern is just being accurate and clear, that you’re not lining yourself up for a lawsuit and disgrace.
Whether or not your prose is florid or swift probably ranks pretty low on your list of concerns.
It reminds me of the way that the incredibly thorough and comprehensive documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who’s most famous for his 11.5 hour Civil War for PBS, looks a little uncomfortable whenever an interviewer calls him a “historian” because, as Burns puts it, he never formally trained to be a historian.
He trained to be a filmmaker.
Thus, what Burns prioritizes is making a good movie. A piece of entertainment (though of course it aspires to be lots of other things too).
What appears to be at the heart of A Tragic Honesty, Bailey’s first (published) book, is the resolution of a “rosebud”-type mystery: Why is this great author, Richard Yates, essentially forgotten, and why was he never celebrated to the same degree as his peers?
And so I think it’s Bailey’s personal curiosity (as well as maybe some angsty solidarity with Yates regarding the elusiveness of literary success) that animates his writing and keeps the prose moving quickly, almost urgently, in the manner of someone who isn’t just spinning a Proustian saga of his subject’s life but actually chasing something, an answer.
He’s also got a novelist’s knack for suggestive portraiture—those constellations of disparate details and episodes that conjure the sight & vibe of a person.
[Yates] always ordered the same thing for breakfast and dinner—scrambled eggs, the “small steak” at the Blue Mill—and it was ill advised to suggest, however lightheartedly, that he try something a bit more exotic for a change. Also he always wore the same daily Brooks Brothers uniform: tweed jacket, blue button-down shirt, gray flannel or khaki trousers, desert boots, a rumpled trenchcoat in cold weather, and for special occasions the tailored suit he’d bought in London. He called all the women in his life “baby,” tenderly, but sometimes too in a menacing tone (“Look, baby…”). He could knowledgeably discuss a number of writers, but the only ones that really mattered remained the same—Flaubert, Fitzgerald, Keats—and the second was a constant, wistful guidepost for life as well as art.A Tragic Honesty, by Blake Bailey
The prose is quick, it flows nicely, but there’s also something punchy and staccato about it: we’re told, in list form, about what’s on his breakfast plate, what he’s wearing, and the writers that matter. We see that he calls women “baby”, a perhaps cringey antiquated term of endearment, but he can also say it with an edge; we see that yes he wears nice clothes (but pretty much the same ones every day) and that he can talk about a number of writers (but only three of them matter).
We see him, back and forth, as expansive and cultured but also closed and forbidding.
In this passage we see the image of Yates expand and contract, expand and contract–it’s like respiration. A lung. The prose breathes as its lung-scalded chainsmoking subject never quite could.
What I’m saying is that Bailey’s doing things with his prose, subtle shit with form, that complements and enhances what’s being discussed.
That prose is also underscored with footnotes where Bailey will occasionally speak in the first person to mention some pertinent aspect of his research, like for instance when talking about the sculptures that Yates’s mom Dookie created he motions us aside to talk for a couple lines, at the bottom of the page, about how he (Bailey) conducted a pretty thorough search for these sculptures but couldn’t find them. All of Dookie Yates’s sculptures appear to be lost.
Cool aside. Interesting to know. But also: You went looking for his mom’s sculptures?
Maybe if I were in the biographer’s shoes it would occur to me as a no-brainer that yeah obviously you’d wanna rest an eye or two and maybe also a hand on these sculptures that so consumed her life. Yates’s relationship with his mother was after all a model for so much of his lovelife and work; so it makes sense that her own artwork would add some shading to the picture.
But I’m convinced that this is the sort of detail a novelistic sensibility (would want to invoke. A desire not just to know the facts but to live among the details.
I’ve never read anything by Richard Yates but I dove into the biography on the merit of Bailey’s own work and I was as thrilled with it as I’d’ve been thrilled with a great novel.
Also, full disclosure, I read it for a few other reasons: the first is that I am, myself, a person who’s written a few novels that haven’t found an agent although, in what the world of publishing would say is an outcome to feel good about, each of my five successive attempts has generated a decidedly warmer and more encouraging slate of rejections than the previous (hence all my flustered commiserative huffing at Yates’s own slate of rejections from The New Yorker saying, “The writing is great, but…”). So the notion of a writer who can’t quite Make It, despite a lifetime of effort, kinda triggers a dark impulse to rubberneck.
Another thing: I’ve said in earlier posts that I’ve also been through episodes where booze, ever present, was more foe than friend—as have lotsa people in my family. So I’ve got a side-eyed curiosity about a guy who wrote fiction his whole life, never quite hit the spotlight, and then squirreled himself away in a basement to drink about it.
Third—and maybe this is the most salient(?)—is that one of the five most formative writers in my life is Philip Roth—who also happens to be Bailey’s newest biographical subject. The Roth book comes out in April, and I’m currently in active pursuit of a galley (I’ve been told by a very patient publicist that I’m on The List).
But. Blake Bailey’s second book, a biography of John Cheever, grabbed me by the shirt when I was a junior in college and became the first book to ever make me cry. There’s a buncha reasons for that, and we’ll explore them in a few days when I finish re-reading it—
the Roth biography is gonna fuck me up and I’m gonna be talking about it at probably exhaustive length both here and on the podcast and I thought, “Look: I own copies of all four of Bailey’s earlier books, lemme just read them in quick succession, gather some thoughts on his craft as a writer, so that when the Roth biography comes out I can talk about it on two fronts: what it reveals about Roth, and what it shows of Bailey’s craft.” Cuz I’m sure you can track a biographer’s stylistic development in the same way you can a novelist’s—especially when the biographer shows novelistic inclinations.
I’ve just never tried it.
Means I oughta say some critical stuff too and so here’s a quibble: we get probably six or seven points in A Tragic Honesty where Bailey tells us that Yates’s drinking gets “worse than ever,” or something to that effect–but there’s nothing to help us quantify the drinking, i.e. that maybe one of Yates’s neighbors at this time saw that he’d started taking his trash out three times a week instead of one, and that the bags all jangled and clacked in a bottlesome way.
In a strident quest for fault, that’s all I got, is the fact that he never tells me how much Yates is drinking; and frankly, when I consider that criticism in the mirror, I wonder if it isn’t just an effort to contextualize my own drinking by comparison so that if someone makes a remark about what I’ve had on a given weeknight I can slap my Kindle and tell em, “Look:”
Anyway, listen: you’re gonna get a Bailey post every few days until we get through all the books cuz frankly I’m kinda spazzing about checking the mail each day for the Roth bio and this is helping me pass the time.