Three great women writers (at last!) get the biographies they deserve
This has been a terrific year for major biographies of under-appreciated or misunderstood women fiction writers. First came Brad Gooch’s “authoritative” biography of Flannery O’Conner, followed by Benjamin Moser’s much-needed book about Clarice Lispector, the Brazilian modernist. And now, at the end of the year a bonus: Joan Schenkar’s revealing biography of Patricia Highsmith.
I’m deeply gratified to see three of my favorite women writers finally get the serious biographical attention they’ve long deserved. What are some of the women writers you’d like to tell people about?
All these biographies are worth reading, having been well and widely reviewed — some critics think Schenkar’s may be a masterpiece. But let’s hope they also drive new and appreciative readers back to the works of their respective subjects. O’Connor, Lispector, Highsmith — each was an original, at odds with the tenor of their times.
You might think O’Connor needs no help in this regard. After all, her cheerfully perverse Southern Gothic stories are forced upon reluctant high school and college students, especially the unsurpassable “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” What’s more, The Complete Stories was recently named the best fiction title in the first 60 years of the National Book Award.
So it’s very surprising indeed to learn that Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor is, as The New York Times reports, “the first major biography” of the literary icon who died 44 years ago at the age of 37. Despite her literary fame, I’d say O’Connor would be grateful to be rescued from the teachers and scholars who stand between most readers and the fevered religious nightmares of her short stories and three novels. O’Connor’s fiction, for all her Catholocism, packs a potent perverse power that’s best experienced, not explained.
Clarice Lispector is probably not, as The Economist claimed earlier this year, “the most important Jewish writer since Kafka.” (More than Isaac Babel? Philip Roth? Bernard Malamud? Saul Bellow? I.B. Singer? I could go on…) But she is certainly one of Brazil’s most important 20th century writers, an idiosyncratic modernist who deserves a much higher profile among English-language readers than she’s had up till now.
Moser’s Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector seeks to correct his unfortunate situation. The author of numerous novels and a few short stories that will haunt me forever, Lispector was also very odd. Stylish and self-possessed — she wore Chanel suits, wrote a beauty column and married a diplomat she did not love –she also seems to have felt no connection to the world.
Yet no writer of my experience–not Joyce, not Kafka, not Camus –creates out of ordinary details a sharper, more terrifying sense that life may really be as meaningless as we all, deep down, fear. For this reason, I suggest starting with her short stories.
Patricia Highsmith, of course, is best remembered as the creator of Tom Ripley, the sociopathic anti-hero of The Talented Mr. Ripley and four other novels. A productive novelist, she also wrote Strangers on a Train, among other novels, and scores of unsettling, amoral short stories. Contemporary writers who owe her a debt range from Jeff Lindsay, creator of the heroic serial killer Dexter, to Jonathan Lethem and Paul Auster.
Apparently Highsmith was, in the words of publisher and bookseller Otto Penzler, “a horrible human being”–she drank, smoked, disliked people in general and seduced married women for sport. In one of the most praised nonfiction books of the
year, Schenkar’s The Talented Ms. Highsmith seeks out the darkness in the heart of this influential misanthrope.
So read these biographies, not only for what they can tell us about these writers but also about the times and places in which they lived. But also go to the works of O’Connor, Lispector and Highsmith. Each possessed a fierce talent, and their stories are the kind that can shake your world and make you feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable things. And isn’t that one reason we read in the first place?