As mentioned in my previous post, I just finished Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith. I loved it so I was curious to take a squizz at what reviewers had made of it and came across this one by Jonathan Lethem. Oh. Dear.
It is exactly the kind of review that annoys me the most. The I-don’t-like-this-kind-of-book-but-I’m-reviewing-it-anyway review. Editors seem to think it dreadfully clever to get the reviewer who hates feminism to review the feminist tome, the hater of romance to review Jennifer Crusie’s latest, and those who are full of contempt for teenagers and books to review YA. It will generate conflict and controversy! Goodie!
No, it will generate annoyance and boredom. I know what people who hate YA think of YA. I want to know if this is a good example of YA. I don’t want to read some boring tosser explaining why the genre sucks. Heard it all before.
Lethem is not a fan of literary biographies so he barely engages with Schankar’s biography. The first three quarters of the review is taken up with his view of the Highsmith revival and which books of hers he thinks best. When he finally mentions the bio, he complains that Schenkar goes into too much detail:
No impression, however, could have possibly prepared Schenkar for the catalogue of torments her scrupulous and excruciating research uncovered. She is compelled by that research to tell us more than we could possibly wish to know. Much as Highsmith rates full treatment, I can’t help wishing Schenkar had spared herself (and me) and written a personal recollection instead (think of Shirley Hazzard’s short memoir of Graham Greene, “Greene On Capri”).
Trouble is Schenkar never met Highsmith, so such a memoir would have to be fiction. That Lethem came away with the impression that Joan Schenkar knew Patricia Highsmith is very odd indeed. No where in it does she so much as imply such a meeting took place, let alone an acquaintance long enough to supply material for a memoir. Which leads me to think that Lethem did not read the whole book or skimmed it.
He concludes by saying:
The best thing Schenkar accomplished, for me, was to drive me back to the work. If Highsmith’s antidote to the poison of living was the writing of her novels, we can follow suit and read them. The antidote to literary biography is literature. [My emphasis.]
That last line is key. Me thinks Mr Lethem does not like literary biography if he feels it requires an antidote, which makes me wonder why he bothered to review one. I can certainly understand his reasons for not liking the whole genre. He’s a much more famous writer than I am so the odds of there one day being bios of him are relatively high. I worry about it and—other than J. K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer—there’s not exactly a huge number of YA writer bios. But then I squirm every time I read a profile or interview of me.
As a writer reading a bio of another writer I find myself wondering just how particular episodes in my past would be portrayed. It makes for much discomfort and a strong desire to destroy all my journals. And I’m a model of good behaviour compared to Highsmith.
I admit I may be projecting my own feelings onto Lethem. Maybe he dislikes literary bios because he doesn’t want to know the warts and failings of his literary heroes? Or maybe one fell on him in his cradle?
I also disagree with the implication that biography is not literature. As it happens Schenkar is an excellent and witty writer. Lethem quotes one of the many passages I’ve read out loud to Scott:
Luckily, their African trip never came off. Jane Bowles had phobias about trains, tunnels, bridges, elevators, and making decisions, while Pat’s phobias included, but were not confined to, noise, space, cleanliness, and food, as well as making decisions. A journey to the Dark Continent by Patricia Highsmith and Jane Bowles in each other’s unmediated company doesn’t bear thinking about.
Some of my favourite writers are biographers. I’m sure they’d be astonished to discover they have not been writing literature. But surely he didn’t mean that last line to be read in an exclusionary way. I have heard Lethem at science fiction conventions making strong arguments for the inclusion of science fiction in the category of literature. Which makes it even more peculiar to see him employing such exclusionary tactics himself.
What I loved so much about Schenkar’s bio was that it created such a three-dimensional portrait of Highsmith. The book is fascinating. I had to stop and read sections out loud to Scott multiple times. Over the past few days of reading it I’ve been talking about it to everyone I know.1 It’s an incredibly intimate portrait of a writer. Of their life and their craft and their process.
It’s also a fascinating portrait of the development of a misogynist, bigoted, racist, anti-semite. Highsmith is awful. A genuinely bad person. But I now have a much clearer idea of how she got that way.
My main complaint about the book is that there was not enough detail. I was very frustrated that there was not a separate section on Highsmith’s publishing career and how, when, and where her current literary reputation emerged. We’re told in passing that her 1950s lesbian novel, The Price of Salt (later retitled Carol) sold hundreds of thousands of copies, but we’re not told over what period of time, and that Found in the Street only sold 3,000 copies on its first US publication. But those are pretty much the only sales figures in the book. The story of her finding her first agent and selling her first book, Strangers on a Train is not told directly. There are references to these events in other sections of the book but I itched for the whole story. Nor was the sale of the film rights to Hitchcock dwelt on—it’s a mere summation in the “Just the Facts” section at the back of the book. Much is made of her deal with the Swiss publisher Diogenes to handle world rights to her book but the specific details of the deal were not revealed.2 For this publishing geek, it was very frustrating.
Lethem’s right about one thing though3 reading the bio has led me back to the books. To thinking about what made her such a good writer when she had so little understanding of, or compassion for, anyone but herself. Not that her lack of empathy doesn’t come through in the books. There’s a reason I can’t read more than three Highsmiths in a row without sinking into a deep depression. Bleak is too mild a word for the outlook.
Except for The Price of Salt which is the outlier Highsmith book and one of my favourites. Think I’ll be re-reading it first.
I picked up a copy of Highsmith’s ‘Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes’ at a newsagents once before embarking upon a tedious coach trip somewhere north. I wasn’t much of a short story reader at the time, but those tales stayed with me for years because they were so darn nasty. Years later I revisited that collection after having dabbled in short story writing myself. The writing style was so unusual. Like she was breaking all the rules, and yet…
He must have read your comments…lol
washingtonpost.com > Arts & Living > Books
Correction to This Article
This review of Joan Schenkar’s book “The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith” incorrectly said that Schenkar knew Highsmith in the latter part of Highsmith’s life, and the review was based on that mistaken assumption, including the reviewer’s wish that Schenkar had written a personal recollection instead of a biography. Schenkar never met Highsmith, nor does the book suggest any acquaintance.
There are plenty of genres I don’t like. I know I don’t like them. So, I don’t read them. If someone asked me to write a review of a book in a genre I didn’t enjoy, I would probably turn them down because I am the wrong person for the job. I like Jonathan Lethem’s writing, and I think he’s a pretty smart guy. So, I don’t really understand why he would agree to do this review.
Alissa: Lethem is, indeed, a very smart, thoughtful guy. Motherless Brooklyn is one of my fave books. We all have our lapses.
no see sometimes i think I could read more about highsmith than by her … even though I love her writing (mostly) – there was a bio a few years ago that I seem to remember being really detailed about her financial pressures – she always wrote but it seemed to me that she didn’t start making $ until later and was never properly appreciated in the states because she was too … dark … the book was called Beautiful Shadow – lots of stuff about her sad texas upbringing …
Lethem’s notice was my favorite to date but I also agree with this post of yours. Hmm, how can I wriggle around this?
Well, for starters, I wear my dislike of literary biography on my sleeve; in fact now that I look it seems to be splattered all over the front of my shirt. So there’s that.
More particularly, though, it makes me very sad that after decades of trying to get people to stop just paying attention to Highsmith’s shelving in the bookstore and to start paying serious attention to Highsmith’s writing, now people seem delighted to instead just pay attention to wonderfully awful gossip about Highsmith’s personality. There’s a very long, still very potent, and very no-win  tradition of ignoring the achievements of female writers in favor of tsk-ing at their personal failings (one of the most gruesome examples being when Ezra Pound diagnosed Emily Dickinson as a loony), and I hate hate hate to see it continue in any form.
 Should all else fail, any successful female writer must at least have neglected her children. What, she didn’t even have children? What was wrong with her?
In other words, I liked it as a reaction to the reaction to the biography, but I can believe it’s unfair as a reaction to the book itself.