Wednesday, 22 August 2007

The Problem with Biographical Fiction—or Maybe Just Biographical Fiction about Writers

The Hours by Michael Cunningham is perhaps the exception that proves the rule, but the more I think, the more it seems to me that the lives of writers don’t make good fiction.

In the last week I’ve started to read two novels about Henry James by writers I admire very much-- The Master by Colm Toibin and Author, Author by David Lodge. After reading at least 75 pages in each I flung them aside in boredom and annoyance. What disappointments!

Toìbin’s book, which I understand becomes a sensitive treatment of James’s ambivalent sexuality, seems to ape James in style, while Lodge, whose other fiction without exception combines witty literary references with rollicking social commentary in well-told stories, appears to be a lightly fictionalized biography. I don’t know though because I couldn’t finish either.

Was it fascination with the process of literary creation and the effects of failure on the writerly psyché that tempted Toìbin and Lodge to write such respectful but ultimately uninteresting books?

Would they have written better novels if they had allowed themselves to take more liberties with James’s life? Perhaps, like Michael Cunningham, they should have somehow mixed their subject into a stew with other elements to create something much less biographical.

Making things up, using facts as the place from which to soar, is what fiction writers are supposed to do. Would that Toìbin and Lodge tried some aerial tricks with Henry James, whose life was, after all, so solidlly anchored in a particularly, rather stuffy milieu.

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