How to Write a Literary Biography

Lee Konstantinou has a very sharp review of Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, DT Max’s David Foster Wallace bio, though I think this misses the point:

The story of Wallace’s life makes it hard to say whether it should be written in experimental, fractured prose or in sentences that are right at home on the pages of The New Yorker, but our effort to answer the question — and this is the most important one that must be asked of Max’s book — necessarily recapitulates the major intellectual and artistic struggle of Wallace’s life, a struggle he never found a way to overcome. Wallace spent years battling those who would domesticate his sentences and put a harness on his imagination.

Biography is a genre that, by definition, attempts to give an arc to a life. Telling it in Wallace’s prose, which was purposely crafted to deny any kind of a narrative arc, is contrary to biography’s aims. Just because Wallace attempted to do this as a writer, I see no reason why a biographer should attempt to replicate what he did.

For a good idea of how a writer can craft a satisfying biography while staying true to an experimental writer’s core sensibilities, I recommend Like a Fiery Elephant, Jonathan Coe’s biography of the very highly experimental British writer B.S. Johnson. This book, I’d argue, is what DT Max’s should have aspired to.


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I completely agree with you, Scott. I still remember the flood of tributes and obituaries that followed DFW’s death — several were written in his style, and I cringed every time I saw another footnote and “and but so.” They came across as somehow hokey and thinly felt.

I certainly wouldn’t recommend that a biographer simply imitate the style of David Foster Wallace, and I tried to be a cagy about my argument by posing it in terms of Wallace’s hypothetical preferences, but the fundamental conflict between so-called “linear realism” and more unfinished/experimental styles of writing is precisely what Max’s bio highlights and what Wallace mentions struggling with in the Lipsky interview I quote. Yes, there are conventions for literary biography–just as there are conventions for what gets called realism–but the issue for Wallace, more than many writers, is whether these conventions falsify or misrepresent lived reality. Does the literary biographer have more of an obligation to conform to genre conventions or to get at the truth of a subject’s life, and if the latter what form would do the job? I don’t have good answers, but giving the definition of a genre normative force begs the question–why is this the definition? Why are these the obligations?

Wallace’s prose was not “purposely crafted to deny any kind of a narrative arc.” Jeez.

I think your reading of this review could’ve been more nuanced (as the review itself is).

Writing a biography does not imply giving an “arc” to someone’s life.

Wallace’s prose is far from being crafted to deny “any kind of narrative arc.”

That being said, writing a biography of him in a pastiche of his style would be hilarious, and a terrible idea.

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