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Three great women writers (at last!) get the biographies they deserve

December 14, 2009

The young Patricia Highsmith

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, also young

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

Flannery O'Connor as a young woman

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?

19 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2009 3:38 pm

    Wonderful. I’ll read them all. Flannery O’Connor was a major influence on my own creation of character in my books, called by one reviewer “Minnesota Gothic.” Her stories are always worth going back to time and again. Let me recommend GEORGE ELIOT by Frederick Karl, a bio page-turner. Also MARY SHELLEY by Emily Sunstein.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 14, 2009 4:14 pm

    Mmm, I wonder who that perspicacious reviewer might have been…I admire your modesty in not naming the novel in question, but I take it upon myself to do so, even though you are not, as far as I can tell, a woman writer, the topic of today’s post. The novel is The Altar of the Body (2001), and for the truly curious, here’s a link to the review you mention: Thanks for the Eliot and Shelley suggestions.

  3. December 14, 2009 4:38 pm

    Three more books to hit the to-read-list. I am especially interested in “The Talented Ms. Highsmith”. Though a Chanel wearing beauty that in your estimation not only holds her own, actually surpasses the likes of Kafka and Camus has more than piqued my curiosity. Thank you.

    • rachel permalink
      December 14, 2009 5:20 pm

      Not surpass Kafka. I don’t think anything can surpass Kafka. But her work gives you the creeps in a similar and yet different way. As Mr Chauncey Mabe says what she does really well is talk about very ordinary, everyday things in this terrifying way that creates a “sense that life may really be as meaningless as we all, deep down, fear.”

      Definitely worth reading.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 14, 2009 5:45 pm

      Lipsector surpasses Kafka and Camus only in her ability to evoke existential horror from the detritus of everyday life. Okay, I’ll admit that’s beating two of the best at their own game, a tall claim to make. But she scared the crap out of me, let me tell you. Lipsector is a recent discovery. I’d never really heard of her before this year. I am not saying she’s a greater writer than Camus or Kafka. I don’t believe she is. Well worth exploring, though not perhaps without a lifeline or a trail of breadcrumbs to follow back to the sunlight…

  4. Candice Simmons permalink
    December 14, 2009 5:04 pm

    Go women writers!! And thanks, Chauncey Mabe, for this column. I’ve got some reading to do.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 14, 2009 5:45 pm

      These are three of the best. Enjoy.

  5. rachel permalink
    December 14, 2009 5:17 pm

    I think that all authors are, as you say ” best experienced, not explained.”

    That said, thank you for this article. It astonishes me that women are still second class citizens in so very many ways. Books included. It does shock me that this Gooch’s book is the first major bio on Flannery O’Connor, considering how often I come across her name. I will have to give reading these bios some consideration. I have read all three of these authors (go me!) so it would be interesting to learn more about them.

    I agree about Clarice Lispector, she is not the best author I have ever read but she made a big impact on mer and her stories scared me. The real feeling of meaninglessness that she can convey and make the reader feel is quite remarkable and unnerving.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 14, 2009 5:48 pm

      I think the reason no one has written a full biography of O’Connor before now may be the perception that she lived a dull, quiet life as an invalid in a small Georgia hamlet, and all the interesting stuff happened in her head. Part of Gooch’s achievement lies in discovering lots of human drama — her years in college, her half-decade in New York, her long friendships with famous people. Still, a lot of the greatest stuff does go on inside her head. For example, she called Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a much more popular Southern novel than anything O’Connor wrote, “a nice children’s book.” Faint praise, what?

  6. December 14, 2009 5:30 pm

    Clarice Lispector is a brand-new name for me. Thank you! I must look into her short stories. (I was a big fan of Malamud and Bellow in my post-college years; also Roth’s early work for its satirical punch.) I had no idea that Patricia Highsmith wrote “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Strangers on a Train,” both terrific movies. I wish someone would write a bio of Katharine Mansfield, one of my all-time favorite short-story writers. She packs so much emotion into her 6-page gem, “Miss Brill.” I’m too much of a scaredy cat for a diet of Gothic, but O’Connor’s story about the Bible salesman has stayed with me.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 14, 2009 5:53 pm

      My favorite O’Connor story is “The Displaced Person,” a chilling yet comic story about Polish refugees from World War II transplanted in the feral South (the only South she wrote about). But it’s a close call against any of her other stories. O’Connor, an obsessive rewriter, is remarkably consistent in the quality of her stories. She was, I think, mainly a short story writer, although her novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away are worth anyone’s time. She was a bit of a modernist, too, not much interested in traditional crowd-pleasing storytelling. I believe I said above that she wrote three novels, but that’s incorrect. Two, only two. Thanks for the mention of Katharine Mansfield. I have not yet caught up with her, although I’ve heard of her work all my life.

    • December 15, 2009 4:55 am

      A biographical novel about Katherine Mansfield was indeed written — in 2007 I believe — by the very wonderful writer Linda Lappin and published by Wordcraft of Oregon and won an award as well. The title of the book is KATHERINE’S WISH, and I warmly recommend it. I agree that Mansfield’s “Miss Brill” is a masterpiece . I will never forget how I read it when I was 17 years old in 1961 and was enfuriated by it. I had not yet understood that a fictional character was not a real person and somehow got it into my head that Katherine Mansfield was responsible for having put poor old Miss Brill through the wrenching sorrow of that story; I was determined to write to the author to complain about her cruelty. Then, looking at the jacket, I learned that Katherine Mansfield had been dead for almost forty years which cleared my focus and put things in perspective. Then it felt as though Katherine Mansfield were reaching out of her grave directly into my heart and moving me powerfully. It was at that moment that I decided I wanted to be a writer. Now, 48 years and 25 books later, I’m still at it, and Katherine Mansfield is still one of the models I look to.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        December 15, 2009 11:19 am

        What a great story, Thomas. I repeat my assertion that one of the best reasons to read is to be unsettled by having my assumptions challenged.

      • December 15, 2009 12:38 pm

        Thomas, you have made my day! I’m embarrassed that I hadn’t heard about the biographical novel and will promptly go to amazon to order it. Thank you!! Confession: Every time I read “Miss Brill,” I cry. I love the point of view, the “unreliable” narrator in any story, but this one packs such an emotional punch in so few pages. Coincidentally, I also was 17 in 1961!
        Chauncey, I agree that fiction should unsettle us; but when I sit down to write, comedy comes out. Does this mean that the clever, masterful comedy of Woody Allen/Neil Simon/Sue Townsend are merely entertainments? (Unlike O’Connor’s Gothic humor?) Or maybe we’re supposed to be unsettled with a lighter touch. I hope so.

  7. Connie permalink
    December 14, 2009 5:51 pm

    What does it say about me that I hardly ever read writers’ biographies? Wait, don’t answer that.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 14, 2009 6:01 pm

      Well, there hasn’t been a biography of Ian McEwan yet….

      I admit I seldom read writers’ biographies, though some of the books that I most enjoyed fall into that category. James Atlas’ Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet; C.S. Lewis: A Biography, by A.N. Wilson; Darden Pyron’s Southern Daughter: The Life of Margaret Mitchell and the Making of Gone with the Wind. Like all great biographies, these books not only bring insight into their subjects, but also make the time in which they lived come palpably into focus. It can be quite beguiling. Wilson’s book on Lewis is worth the money just for its miniature portrait of Charles Williams, a minor scholar and writer and a member of the Inklings, the informal writing group that included Lewis and Tolkien.

      But often I choose to read the novel instead of the book about the author….

  8. December 15, 2009 4:05 pm

    Sorry, Chauncey. I misread “unsettled.” Unsettled by having one’s ideas challenged is can be a happy experience! Comedy can certainly do that, too.

  9. January 28, 2010 3:31 am

    I am getting in here a bit late – having just discovered this blog — and thank you Tom for these kind words about my Mansfield novel, Katherine’s Wish. I had read reviews of the Highsmith biography, and that’s most certainly on my to read list. Another curious unknown woman writer of Mansfield’s era is the English writer Mary Butts – who enjoyed a brief revival in the late 90s when her books were reprinted and when a major biography was published along with her journal, which I like best. She was an aristocrat down at the heels, a friend of Cocteau’s, an opium addict, briefly a pupil of Crowley, who led for a time a rather wild life in Paris in the twenties before settling down in Cornwall. Her books and stories are sort of shapeless but bound together by strange resonances and symbolic threads –every now and shot through with brilliant metaphors and eerie evocations of myth.

    One of her stories was published in 1998 by the New Yrkr — and the subtitle read something like “one of the last great unknown writers of the early 20th century” — certainly an interesting character. by the way, vis-à-vis Highsmith- there’s been some interesting blogging about Highsmith on the New Yorker blog recently.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 12, 2011 12:05 am

      Thanks for the Mary Butts recommendation. Another write new to me.

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