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How Not to Do Literary Biography

Dan Green has extraordinarily harsh words for David C. Dougherty, the author of Shouting Down the Silence: A Biography of Stanley Elkin:

Shouting Down the Silence, David C. Dougherty’s biography of Stanley Elkin, does its subject a disservice by being such a terrible book that it is hard to imagine it could either enhance appreciation of Elkin’s fiction for those already acquainted with it or persuade those unfamiliar with it that he is a writer worth their attention. Since this latter group was already disappointingly large during Elkin’s lifetime and only grows larger in the years following his premature death, a book about Stanley Elkin ought to remind us that he was one of the most gifted writers of his time, a prodigiously dynamic stylist with an uproariously inventive imagination to match. In a period of American fiction (specifically the 1960s and 1970s) devoted to audacity of style and an unabashedly comic outlook, Elkin might have been the most audacious and the most aggressively comedic, a central fact of Elkin’s work that his biographer should prominently emphasize. Yet in his final chapter, Dougherty writes merely that “one purpose of this biography is to gather useful information” should Elkin’s “stock rise.” This seems remarkably passive if Elkin’s fading influence is as real and as troubling as Dougherty seems (correctly) to believe. One might think that someone who is both Elkin’s biographer and a notable scholar of Elkin’s work would use the opportunity to produce a biography of Elkin at a time when his legacy is uncertain to support a larger effort to prevent the writer from falling into irrelevance or losing his proper place in American literary history. Instead he has given us a listless chronicle of the course Elkin’s life took once he began writing short stories and eventually attracted the attention of publishers.

If this is the standard by which we judge these books, then I will reaffirm my great admiration for Jonathan Coe’s Like a Fiery Elephant, an amazing biography that instilled in me–and many other readers I know of–an interest to seek out the work of is subject, B.S. Johnson. It would seem to be everything this book is not.

The book does at least inspire Dan to write a little about Elkin’s literature:

Elkin claimed Faulkner as one of his stylistic inspirations, but Faulkner’s style is cadenced and oratorical in its rhetorical excess, while Elkin’s is both more freewheeling and more precise. Elkin makes language perform in a surprising way when Ben Flesh anticipates his personality being “old-timered” and finding the impending changes “shoving shucks in his vocabulary,” but in each case the verbal flourish is also memorably evocative of the phenomenon Ben Flesh is contemplating. Elkin’s excess is central to his aesthetic ambition, which is to animate his loose-jointed narratives through the constant revelations of a boundlessly vital style.

THE SURRENDER

The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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