Well, that's a bummer. I was hoping the annual holiday book selection in the New Yorker would list my American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush. The book makes, after all, a pretty good gift for a relative who's serious, reads non-fiction, and already has a cabinet of ties. At about forty pages each, it narrates both the public and private lives of the last twelve presidents; given that it's the first book of its kind since Suetonius' famous Roman tome The Twelve Caesars (which furnished the basis for Robert Graves' novel I, Claudius, also the award-winning TV series of that name, starring Derek Jacobi), it's tailor made, surely, for Hanukka-wrapping, or placing under the Christmas tree for Uncle Sam.
Mmm. Not there.
Read the subtitle, Nigel: "Reviewers' favorites from 2010."
Just because you got some wonderful TV coverage -- MSNBC's Morning Joe, with Joe Scarborough and his team talking about the book, and C-Span Booktv's After Words with Richard Norton Smith discussing it for an hour, and C-Span covering the talk you gave at your beloved local bookstore in Massachusetts -- doesn't get you on the list of "Reviewers' favorites from 2010." Not if you still haven't been reviewed by the New Yorker!
Which goes for some other newspapers and journals, too. Somehow, the book has sold miraculously well just from my TV talks and word of mouth, even getting into the top few hundred on Amazon. It's never fallen below 10,000 in sales rank out of several million in the United States, since September. But how can it ever make the holiday book lists if it isn't being reviewed by serious reviewers?
Yikes! The New Yorker reviewed my first major biography, The Brothers Mann, some thirty years ago (George Steiner); it even reviewed my little book on life writing, Biography: A Brief History, three years ago (Louis Menand). Each week the journal (my favorite) has article upon article about the primary issues addressed in American Caesars -- leadership, war, international relations, personality vs the forces of history... Why, then has it ignored the work? I see Operation Mincemeat, an old WWII chestnut in the list; I see Empires and Barbarians [medieval]; I see The Icarus Syndrome. But not American Caesars....
Oh, well, I tell myself. It could be worse.
Bad reviews, of course!
Bad reviews are the bane of an author's post-publication existence. Even pre-publication, when the reviewer jumps the gun, and damns a book before it's even come out. Think of Michiko Kakutani, for example, regularly slamming poor Philip Roth -- despite his being probably the greatest living novelist and prose writer in America. He writes in a chiseled, Spartan style, beside which even Jonathan Franzen's prose sounds prolix and unnecessary -- but La Kakutani can cut Roth no slack. Better no review from her, in the New York Times, than being sicked upon by her!
The thing is: we need reviews to get the word out -- but we don't want the bad stuff, which can drive us to depression or even suicide. E.M. Forster famously said that he really wrote only for the good opinion of his friends, who he respected; but that certainly wouldn't have paid his heating bills. Most authors understand this, and are, as a result, pretty positive about each other's works. This builds a sort of credit balance for when your own next book comes out - indeed in terms of back-of-the-book pre-publication puff pieces, it has become a small, unpaid industry, as we respond to publishers' and our friends' entreaties to write a few nice lines. I remember asking my friend Edmund Morris if he'd do that for my little biography history book; he said he'd love to have a copy of the book, but didn't do "fluff." Possibly his authorized Reagan biography would have gotten better press had he been so willing -- but I respect him the more for drawing a line in the sand, at least on that score. And his publisher's advance was so humungous, after all, he didn't need to bother about press reception or sales, let alone fluffs.
Mmm. The bad stuff: Edmund was hurt, of course, by the response to Dutch -- for he believed he was charting new biographical territory in the way he invented himself into the story, and wove fictional as well as non-fictional scenes into the narrative. And the book, in retrospect, does capture a lot of Reagan's odd, strangely elusive yet beguiling character, which should [- according to Virginia Woolf's famous dictum -[ be the chief aim of a biographer. It was just that he forgot the many people who wanted, from the authorized biographer, a conventional, trustworthy account of the man's life, from A to Z. Which is what Edmund has given us in terms of Theodore Roosevelt, after all -- ending with his latest and final volume, Colonel Roosevelt.
Which brings us round to the problematik of biography, as Germans like to say. Like history, it's not only a collection of facts about a life, it's an interpretation. The biographer -- save in Dutch, and a few other pioneering biographies -- may not be using the first person singular in the narrative, but sure as hell he or she is recording the subject's life with a point of view, shaped over the months and years of research: a point of view that is, inevitably, partisan, biased, judgmental. How could it be otherwise? We write, as biographers, in order to grapple with the meaning, the significance, the moral stature, the effect on others, of a particular, chosen life. We struggle to be as impartial as possible in our fact-gathering -- by being open, in other words, to truth, even where it contradicts or threatens our conception of our subject: our hero or victim. But in the end, we are judging a life.
Samuel Johnson, of course, put it best several centuries ago, when pointing out that biographers, in focusing upon a single life, are chiefly exercised by the relationship between the public and the private. Asked what was the best lesson for youth, he said, the life of a good man. And the next best one? "The life of a bad one"! His own biographer, James Boswell, provoked outrage, of course, by following exactly Johnson's prescription, and giving us the Great Doctor, warts 'n all - so much so, in fact, that Dr. Johnson has survived in cultural memory more vividly and fondly than he could ever have done simply from his works.
My point is: Boswell dared. And in so daring, with respect to a subject of such high distinction, he set in train the rise of biography as one of the quintessential literary contributions to modern western culture, that sets us apart from almost every other civilization.
In daring to re-tell the stories of the last twelve American presidents, both public and private, I knew I would incur some outrage with American Caesars. "If you hate George W. Bush and American neo-conservatism, you will love this book," one English reviewer began his denunciation. Others -- people who admire FDR, respect Harry Truman, honor Dwight Eisenhower, revere JFK -- have been kinder, in reviews that have appeared in Ireland, Scotland, England, even Switzerland - bless those lederhosen. Here... Well, the fact is, I'm still waiting.
Not holding my breath, since I know I'll be hurt if the eventual reviews are bad. I want to be festive and happy over Christmas. Ergo, I'm unlisted, but OK. And happy for those who did make it: especially my literary hero, Philip Roth, whose Nemesis is the worst-titled but best-written novel I've read this past year, closely followed by David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, an absolute tour de force.
So, meantime: Happy holidays from the American Caesars-scribbler! And keep up the word of mouth!
Nigel Hamilton is president of Biographers International Organization (BIO: biographersinternational.org), which is holding its second annual conference next May 21 in Washington D.C. He has published more than twenty works of biography and history, most recently American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush (Yale). Nigel recently became an American citizen; he is currently Senior Fellow in the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston.