I became a writer because talking isn't a profession, and there are only so many trades that reward you for being a gossip. Among them, literature, where you get to write the worst thing you know about a person, and suddenly, you're an artiste. Take Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and Lolita. An enormous aspect of their appeal is that you get to read all about some heinous flesh romp without suffering one iota of guilt—and earn a bookish reputation. Read Colette or D.H. Lawrence and you're cultured; read Hello! and you're a smut maven. It's one of the fundamental contradictions of contemporary life, because let me tell you, slap Hello! between two hard covers, and it's a contender for the Booker Prize. The lesson here being that you can dish it all you want, as long as you manage to call gossip anything but gossip, and think up some fancy name for it (preferably something French, like roman à clef or memoir).
I consider myself something of an expert on this subject, both because I've written a memoir, and because I have been a gossip since childhood. I grew up in Texas, where, when visiting my grandparents' ranch, the boys went outside in the heat and filth to tend horses, while the girls stayed in the air-conditioning, drinking iced tea and telling fascinating stories. Let's just say that the profound injustice of this arrangement was immediately evident to me. Let's also say that I have never heard a horse say anything worth listening to. My whole life has been spent craving the juicy story and racing back to my grandmother's parlor to savor every sordid word.
It took me some time to make the connection between my passion for tittle-tattle and my fondness, as a reader, for biography over fiction. For years I believed my literary taste signaled a lack of imagination. But it finally came to me. The real reason I'd been loath to waste my time with novels, even “thinly veiled” ones, was due, once again, to my Texas upbringing. I'd been raised to shoot where the ducks are, and if it was dirt I was reading for, it was to be found in the biography section, without fiction's finicky delicacy of changed names and identifying details.
I'm unabashed to admit my taste for dime-store biographies heavy on the matinee glamour. The summer I was 16, I nicked the fender of my mother's car while reading Marianne Faithfull's autobiography in traffic. And when I finished Sally Bedell Smith's Reflected Glory: The Life of Pamela Churchill Harriman, I believed—for about 45 minutes—that it was the finest book I would ever read; if Proust or Trollope had ever encountered Ms. Bedell Smith, they'd have hung up their spurs and saddles.
But while I adore Kitty Kelley, my reading tastes have occasionally veered toward the edifying. Gerald Clark's Capote laid to rest my worry that all writers live like librarians. Diane Wood Middlebrook's Anne Sexton assured me that though I'm bourgeois, I could still be a poet. And Blanche Weisen Cook's multivolume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt provided evidence for the existence of moral courage. But let's get real: the passages of particular interest in Cook's Eleanor Roosevelt had scant to do with the WPA. They tended, instead, to involve those moments when the First Lady's passions weren't immediately focused on the public welfare.
Of course, I was never reading just for the cheap thrill, like I never snuck back to my grandmother's parlor for the mere sake of scandal. I wanted to have my secret thoughts confirmed, to know that there was more to the world than what was properly told. The broadening function of gossip never gets any credit. I'd never have made it from the ranch to Manhattan respecting the privacy of strangers. I suspect we smut mavens are an ambitious readership—you show me a tell-all addict, and I'll show you someone who'd like more from life. Biography makes promises Madison Avenue wouldn't dare. Here's a real person, these books persuade, whose life was important enough to be written. Love and money, fame and honor, all with a jacket photo of the genuine article. As a person who's never managed to consider my life outside the narrative context, the very fact of biography has always inspired my self-confidence. And the heinous flesh romps never hurt, either.
|Robert Leleux teaches creative writing in New York City schools. His memoir, The Memories of a Beautiful Boy, was just released in paperback by St. Martin's Griffin.|