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The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Poem rec #3, and musing
Day three of the poetry marathon. Rec from Langston Hughes. I always thought this was an elegant use of informal language, and the imagery is awesome:

"A Dream Deferred"

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

I spent the morning looking for poems to put up around the room, and this ended up tripping over Maya Angelou's shelves of autobiographies. I realized I was looking at them distastefully, though I've never read them, and then I realized something about myself--I cordially dislike biography as a form, and detest any autobiography or memoir that's not written as a joke. Which is weird. I don't know why I would dislike a whole form, which can be well-written, badly written, tawdry, important, silly... Hmmm.

It's not a new thing. I've never been given to reading biographies, and actually turned my nose up at an extra credit program at school because it would have been reading several of them without being forced to. I remember reading a couple of them when I was little--Annie Sullivan was a favorite, and Bill Cosby--but on the whole, I always preferred other forms.

It's not even that I dislike knowing about people. I like people, and am happy to listen to them talk about their own experiences in the course of talking about something else.

And I feel like I'm the only one. They're so popular. But my first thought when the James Frey story broke was--I'm not exaggerating--"Maybe this will finally put an end to these stupid things." I also actually hoped it would be followed by a bitter exposé on David Pelzer.

When did I get so damned hostile about the whole thing?


I guess I can't understand why "This really happened" makes a story more compelling than it would be if it were written in fiction (ref, Frey's inability to sell his memoir as fiction before tarting it up and claiming it as autobiography).


18 comments or Leave a comment
harriet_wimsey From: harriet_wimsey Date: April 3rd, 2006 08:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, I've never liked autobiographies, or biographies in general. Perhaps not to quite such an extent as you, but I certainly would never seek them out, or buy them.
gloryforever From: gloryforever Date: April 3rd, 2006 09:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
I must confess that I don't know a lot about poetry. It's a little bit like Art, I can only tell if I like it or not but can't judge its quality. Anyway, I really liked the poem you rec'd and I'd like to share one of my favorites.



matril From: matril Date: April 3rd, 2006 09:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
I like! It was interesting to see the variant translations too. Poetry is one of those mediums that often eludes decent translation because it's so much tied up in the nuances of its particular language. The more translations there are, the closer a non-native speaker can get to approaching the meaning.
matril From: matril Date: April 3rd, 2006 09:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
I like that poem; I always have, even before I had much appreciation for poetry. Great imagery.

I, too, have never been particulary riveted by biographies. Perhaps because in the need to be Accurate, it's difficult to have a cohesive arc to the story of the person's life. Cause really, people's lives don't make much sense, story-wise. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it just makes biographies less compelling than fiction. For me, anyway.
gloryforever From: gloryforever Date: April 3rd, 2006 11:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
Indeed. Real life is much stranger than fiction.
todayiamadaisy From: todayiamadaisy Date: April 3rd, 2006 09:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't like biographies and autobiographies either. I think part of it because of the superiority factor - who really thinks they so much more interesting than everybody else that we'd all love to read about them? And I doubt their accuracy: an autobiography or a biography written by a fan may not look at the negative aspects of someone's character; one of those "unauthorised" hatchet jobs might only dwell on the negative.

I think the real thing I don't like about them, though, is the element of artificiality, which sounds odd given that it's a true story - but real lives don't automatically have dramatic beginnings, middles and endings. So the life has to be shoe-horned into a narrative structure, and while that may work for a specific incident in a life, I don't think it can hold up over a whole lifetime.
hermia7 From: hermia7 Date: April 3rd, 2006 11:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
I like the poem... I'm not huge on poetry, though I like some Beaudelaire and I'm a sucker for (two ends of the seriousness spectrum, here) John Donne and Ogden Nash.

Re. biographies, I tend to enjoy good ones about important people, and there are some autobiographies I've really liked. I enjoy memoirs by chefs (one of my favorites is The Apprentice, by Jacques Pepin), and some other memoirs that are more about a really interesting career or life story rather than "AND THEN, the drugs and drama and blah blah blah." Katharine Graham's "Personal History" was another fabulous one. I guess I've again enjoyed the ones about really amazing lives—people I respected or was intrigued by—not unknowns who fancy themselves interesting.
verseblack From: verseblack Date: April 3rd, 2006 11:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
In my Entirely Too Big collection of books I can only think of two biographies. One is the Charles Dodgson "The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll" written by his nephew. I am constantly on the lookout to add more books about Dodgson because I love reading all the varying, contradictory accounts that are given of him. (Also a big fan of reading fiction books where Dodgson shows up.)

The other is focused on James Wolfe, a British general in the French and Indian War the I went utterly mad for when I was in middle school. He was an interesting character, but I also enjoy all the military history that shows up in all the books about him.

There is an antique store I sometimes visit that has shelves of books of biographies of authors and I always feel like I should pick one up, but never can quite drum up the interest.
the_evil_sock From: the_evil_sock Date: April 4th, 2006 12:00 am (UTC) (Link)

Biographies and fiction...

I enjoy biographies, but the biograhies I most enjoy are those that probably would be good as fiction. Of course this means that the biographies about the most significant people aren't necessarily the best (at least IMO).

As for autobiographies, I usually don't enjoy them as much, but I think that's because I don't really like the first person in fiction either. Not that it isn't good, just that it's not my cup of tea.
From: boldsunshine Date: April 4th, 2006 12:34 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm a fiction reader all the way. The only autobiography I read that I ever liked was Katherine Hepburn's.
hughroe From: hughroe Date: April 4th, 2006 01:21 am (UTC) (Link)
Well, as far as biographies go, for me it has to be well written and about an interesting person...

Like Churchill, or Patton, or Montgomery.

Hmmm, mostly military then, and those that made a difference.
angua9 From: angua9 Date: April 4th, 2006 01:55 am (UTC) (Link)
I don't like biographies much at all, and read them only as a source of information, but I adore autobiographies with a mad, passionate love. Some of my favorites are Agatha Christie's, Isaac Asimov's, and M.M. Kaye's.

Hmmm... perhaps I only like autobiographies of writers...
From: greenwoodside Date: April 4th, 2006 08:17 am (UTC) (Link)
It's a pity you aren't keen on biography or autobiography. A lot of it is terribly dross, of course. Are the ghost-written memoirs of footballs and pop-stars as much of a joke in America as they are in the U.K.?

In some ways, I have an opposite reaction to you. If I read fiction featuring a person who actually existed, I tend to feel on an almost subconscious level that the author is being dishonest and why don't they just write a proper biography if they want to write about them? I know that reaction is unfair, and ignores the many good reasons an author might have for fictionalising an r.l. person.

I've always been meaning to read more biography. It can be so fascinating. For instance, a couple of years ago I read through what Albert Speer had written about himself, and then what other writers - Gitta Sereny and Joachim Fest - had written about him. Very interesting.

I suspect I should read Primo Levi's memoirs. On a lighter note, BBC Radio 4 serialised a biography of Matisse and that sounded rather good. So, yeah. I'm sorry that biography isn't your cup of tea. At its best, it can be spectacular.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 4th, 2006 11:57 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm not even all that big on real people in fiction, though at least if it's a strong story, I'll read it. I tend to like them best in total alternate settings.

I recognize my reaction as being unfair; I just can't seem to shake it. I've never liked the form, and it's just gotten worse over the years.

And yeah--those silly ghosted memoirs are a joke here as well, except to the credulous fans who read them.
sophonax From: sophonax Date: April 4th, 2006 11:09 am (UTC) (Link)
I also actually hoped it would be followed by a bitter exposé on David Pelzer.

I love biography and memoir, and I agree with you 100% here :)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 4th, 2006 12:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
I know that at least one reporter has questioned it, but fans jumped up wildly waving Pelzer's brother around--the only one who suggests the story might be true. Pointing out that the brother has gotten on the gravy train doesn't seem to make a difference. No one else admits to remembering it, so of course it's still plausible; after all, everyone else might be lying. Of course, even if every word of it were true, I'd still think it's a bad thing for society to fetishize.
From: (Anonymous) Date: April 4th, 2006 05:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
This is Milaya from the Quill, just checking out your livejournal randomly. But I wanted to add my two cents here. I'm not a big fan of biographies or autobiographies either, and I think there are a couple reasons. One of the big ones is that the idea of selling your life story just seems incredibly pretentious to me. I know they're not always, or even often, pretentious and self-congratulatory, but the whole genre just strikes me as providing such an opportunity to sell yourself. The main other reason I have is just that life stories rarely have cut-and-dry plots, with rising and falling action, and climaxes, and all that, and I think that can work sometimes, but in the hands of mediocre writers, it becomes too unfocused too easily.

That said, I read a biography of Isaac Newton a few years ago which I adored, and although I haven't read any of David McCullough's biographies, I've heard they're very good and am eager to read them, so go figure.
(Deleted comment)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 4th, 2006 07:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
That would go under the "doesn't take it seriously" escape clause. ;)
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