The Literary Self(ie)

Brian Michael Murphy
August 30, 2013
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My favorite part of any literary biography or memoir is usually the glossy white section with the photographs. The photo section, along with the text, constructs the literary self we imagine generates the narrative. My favorite images of this genre give me the sense that the subject was tragically cool, intense, fun-loving, stylish, well-loved, all the things nearly all of us want to be, but none of us–perhaps, especially writers–are all of the time.

But the literary self is no longer only composed of what we’ve read, written, published, corresponded, reviewed, criticized, inspired, or edited, of the images in the photo section. I meet more writers through their twitter pics or Instagram feeds or Facebook page than I ever will meet at a salon, or writing colony, or an invite-only dinner held by a publisher or agent or fellow writer,  or the public seating outside a San Francisco café, or any of the other scenes in which writers first encountered each other in modern times past.

Will the great literary biographers of the future have the patience, the access, the inspired capacity to tolerate boredom that will be required to sift through the gargantuan archive of digital text and images that writers now leave behind? Will they find jewels like those that continue to haunt me? In A Movable Feast, a twenty-something “Hem” stands on the sidewalk outside Shakespeare and Company beside Sylvia Beach, a bandage on his head from some sparring session, or barfight, or fishing injury–it remains unexplained and we can only imagine. In Lorca: A Dream of Life–the tragic poet/playwright clowning with his then-friend Dalí standing behind him, the painter’s hands on the poet’s hips as if inviting a dance, both bronzed and smooth like statues under the sun of Cadaqués.

With these evocative images in mind, I can’t help but think of the future of the photo section in literary biography and memoir. Will they draw from Facebook timelines? Tweeted pics? Instagram posts? Will the selfie be the primary mode of literary portraiture? Any writer who has not hired a professional photographer, or convinced a friend or lover to play the role, knows that it takes about 47 captures before you produce a self-portrait free of evidence that you took it–the extended shoulder, the slight angle from below, the tell-tale signs of a selfie. (Not that I’ve ever taken a selfie and submitted it as an official author photo; but I have friends who…)

The photo section, strangely enough, performs a similar role as personal social media accounts, though the concision of the photo section–I always want there to be more photos than there are–gives it a power that a tumblr page lacks. Yet both seem to offer a more intimate, seemingly less official, more spontaneous portrait of the writer. I’m thinking of David Leeming’s James Baldwin caught off-guard as he descends the stairs of a friend’s stoop in Turkey. James Jones typewriting From Here to Eternity in the sun outside a camper in A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, and, in the same volume, Thomas Wolfe’s six-six frame towering over a stack of pages overflowing a wooden crate on which he rests one of his huge feet, thousands of pages that would later be slashed down to Of Time and the River. A profile of Gregory Corso in his much-coveted top floor room under the mansard roof of the “Beat Hotel” in Barry Miles’ book of the same name. (I once met educational crusader Jonathan Kozol, who blew off a Rhodes Scholarship for political reasons and went to Paris instead–which is very cool, by the way–and became the envy of the building when he took over Corso’s room, where he wrote his novel, The Fume of Poppies. Burroughs took him out to dinner the night he arrived, he said. The anecdote now compounds the mystique of the photo, for me.)

Will the selfie invade the sacrosanct photo section that should carry grainy black-and-whites of hand-rolled cigarettes and wool suits, group shots on Parisian sidewalks (I’m thinking of The Paris Review’s inaugural staff outside the Café Tournon), previously unpublished negatives posthumously discovered in an ex-wife’s attic? The selfie is an exemplary contradition–it is clearly self-composed, but egregiously so. No one looks their best in a selfie. But, as writers, I’m sure we will continue to take them, for we are always trying to compose ourselves, in every sense of the word.

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