Hagiography -- Writing the Lives of the Saints

12/30/2010 06:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Writing biography is a scandalous enterprise; its penciled craftsman is perennially suspect for being neither art-maker, nor historian, nor critic, but some simple version of all three. The life-scribe is often painted as parasitic without good purpose, serving only self-interest, serving only self-advancement. The literary biographer, as a shameless subset, is almost without question accused of unbridled hagiography -- the study of saints. In this wholly un-catholic context, "hagiography" is a pejorative term, an accusation that the biographer writes with uncritical reverence.

Anyone who has ever written a biography (or reads one well) knows that the genre's purpose is to gather from the scattered vulgarities of a human life some finer meaning, or set of questions that frame that life and all our lives for our own times. The biographer's purpose is to write something that allows a new viewing of human accomplishment and failure, attribute and action. The biographer is a scientist of human paradox.

I read an essay written by Bill Morris on the website The Millions titled, "Will You Beat Hagiographers Please Be Quiet, Please?" Passionately and clearly, Morris sets out to admonish the hero worshippers of "The Beats," which in his view spend too much time documenting and discussing the lives of Burroughs and Kerouac and Ginsberg and not enough time on their work. Morris finishes his piece with "Beware of hagiographers who tell you a writer's life is more important than the books he or she wrote. It never is."

This conclusion sounds to me like a cold stone hitting the bottom of an empty coffee can. It sounds to me, untrue. And yes, by the way, sentences do "sound" to me and don't, first or sometimes even, "mean" to me. I'm a physical writer. Words are the sounds they make. I offer this admission to make it easier for a future block-headed, blurry-eyed biographer to get it right.

I knew Allen Ginsberg. He was my teacher. In the early 1990s, I visited his apartment on the lower eastside of New York City where he was hosting one of his many student potlucks. He invited Carl Solomon and Peter Orlovsky to join us that cold winter day. Even though I wasn't a biographer then, but instead a young poet, I did come upon something profound related to understanding the lives and work of writers. I came to better understand Ginsberg (the man and poet) by having dinner with him. I came to know that day that compared to Carl Solomon, who appeared gravely depressed and despondent, and compared to Orlovsky, who appeared completely un-tethered to the real world, Ginsberg was almost bourgeois. Ginsberg, beyond the fireworks of his crazed life, was actually a driven, even ambitious writer. This drive had allowed him to sidestep oblivion; his devotion to his art-making was his ladder over the crevice. I've haven't viewed writers, or writing, or art-making the same since. Also, as a biographer, I must add that Ginsberg made a mean lentil soup.

Apart from my thoughts on Ginsberg though, Morris' piece jarred other thoughts on this subject loose for me. I was struck by, and amused with, Morris' title and its literary reference. If I'm wrong, and I don't think I am, he references Raymond Carver's brilliant story collection Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? Carver's biography of late has been the stuff of highbrow arguments everywhere, everywhere from The New Yorker to The New York Times Book Review (that's a highbrow joke of my own). The questions surrounding the editing of Carver's stories by Gordon Lish, and the proper way in which to print and read his work, has been written of "everywhere." While I'll withhold my own thoughts on this for now, I do want to address the legacy of Carver as a "Dirty Realist." Perhaps, like "The Beat" that Ginsberg was, Carver, too, had a problem with his own literary label. Or perhaps he does now even in death!

A few years ago, I did a profile on the magnificent writer Tobias Wolff for Poets & Writers Magazine. I felt I did a pretty good job on it. My editor pushed me as we moved toward publication to tighten the logic of the piece and also to find a handle, if one existed, to place Wolff in the context of a school. In my research, I found that Wolff and Carver and several others had been written about for years (first by Granta, I believe) as part of the school of writers called "Dirty Realists." So, with some additional research, I found that, in fact, it was a label that people had stuck with over the years. I added this to the piece and satisfied my editor. What I didn't know at the time was that it was a label that bothered, even annoyed, Wolff. And I heard about it.

Following the publication of the piece in Poets & Writers, I had a couple of email exchanges with Wolff. He admonished me for being "lazy" in attaching the term to his work. He was, I think, particularly bothered at having the term plastered on the front cover next to his picture -- something I had no notice of, nor control over. He admonished me for getting a couple of facts wrong, too, which I wrote to my editor about and we corrected as "errors" in the next issue. While the whole experience rattled me, it wasn't without purpose.

Over time, from these experiences and others, I've developed a wider view of how writers can feel about their work. Some art-makers see no separation between themselves and their art, while others find their work as separate as a tree is to the idea of a tree. In the end, almost without exception though, I've found that nearly all art-makers would bargain with the devil if they could only manage to have utter control over their work and their legacy for all eternity. Many writers believe, I think wrongly, that they are the best judges and champions of their intentions, accomplishments, and abominations.

Art belongs to the commoner though, the public, and no longer to the artist once the thing gets made. Just as Edith Grossman argues that Don Quixote was not written for academic scholars studying the march of the modern novel into oblivion, but instead for the common reader -- all of literature and art exists for the public to do with it what it will. And it will.

Finally, I have one final point to bother you with. I disagree with Bill Morris in his essay when he says, "Beware of the hagiographers who tell you a writer's life is more important than the books he or she wrote. It never is." Really, Bill, the life is the thing -- the life is all there is.

Joe Woodward is at work on his own martyr-ology of Nathanael West to be published by O/R Books in the spring of 2011. He writes about the process at The Nathanael West Project.