One Hundred Biographers: Deirdre Bair explains her bibliographic decisions
Following is a portion of the interview I conducted with Deirdre Bair that deals with some of the questions that have been asked:
PH: How do you feel about Anaïs Nin, the woman, 14 years after the publication of your biography?
DB: More and more, as the years pass, I recognize how important she was as a woman of her time. She really paved the way—many ways—for women at a time when everything, in the world of women, was in flux and changing. She allowed women to realize all the possibilities that were out there in the world for them. And she did this so instinctively and naturally. A partial response to one of your questions—you’d mentioned how some women had said, “She ruined my life. I did what she told me to do, ended relationships and went on into the world.” Well, there were an equal number who said, “She gave me my life. She raised possibilities for me that I’d been to timid to embrace before I read her writing. After that, my life changed dramatically.” So I would say that for every woman who said, “She ruined my life because I did what she did and it didn’t work out for me,” there were an equal number who said, “She allowed me to realize so many possibilities for myself.” So I think the more we look back on her during the historic time in which she lived and wrote, we’re going to realize the importance of her contributions, not only to arts and letters, but to life.
PH: How do you respond to the criticism that your biography is judgmental and moralistic?
DB: I would to tell those people to look at the mail I received when the book was published. For every critic who accused me of that, there are other critics who said, “You were too easy on her. You were too soft on this terrible, dreadful person.” So what we’re looking at here is an individual response on the part of the reader, and I actually welcome both judgments. Basically I think it really comes down to the reader. Those who adore Anaïs will be disappointed—and Rupert Pole and Gunther Stuhlmann were certainly first among them.
PH: This is a question to which I know some would like an answer: did you like Anaïs Nin?
DB: I try to not like or dislike anybody I write about. Writing is my work; my life is elsewhere. I’m a scholar. I’m an intellectual and cultural historian of literature, and my job is to write a book that future generations will use in order to form their own opinions. It’s not my job to like or dislike; it’s my job to understand, and to present the totality of the person’s life and work with as much integrity and objectivity as possible.
In response to questions I e-mailed to Deirdre Bair (including why she chose to term Anaïs Nin a “major minor writer”), she responded:
I’ve been re-reading my introduction to [Anaïs Nin: A Biography] since this afternoon, when I received your email request to respond to critics. As you know, I’ve published two books since I wrote the biography of Anaïs Nin and I am now on deadline for a third, so I haven’t re-read any part of the book since the last time I had to give a talk about it, and that was 3 years ago in Australia. But today, in response to your thoughtful query, I opened the book and re-read my introduction carefully and thoroughly. I was surprised by a number of things that made me wonder how much “reason” versus how much “emotion” had colored the perceptions readers brought to bear on their responses to the book.
My first response to the readers who are hostile to the book was to note from my very first sentence, how clearly and succinctly I told them what my aims, goals, and intentions were in writing the book. In doing so, I enumerated all the charges against Anaïs that I had heard before I started to write—about the “liary,” or how she did not “deserve” a bio such as mine (p. xvi), and how I believed it was the biographer’s responsibility to answer such charges.
I explained to the reader how I went about my work, (beginning on p. xvi and continuing on xvii). The paragraphs on p. xvii beginning “In every instance” and ending with “…evidence for further scholarly inquiry” explain in full how I worked to produce an “objective” biography, how I avoided attaching labels to her, and how I felt the obligation “to allow readers to form their own opinions about this woman I found so compellingly complex.”
Then, on p. xviii, I explain in full how and why I came to adopt Cynthia Ozick’s sophisticated and well-reasoned argument for calling the neglected novelist Arthur Chester a “major minor writer” and for applying this term to Anaïs Nin. I believe those several paragraphs clearly and carefully explain what I meant, so I choose not to try to explain my reasoning further here. I urge readers to re-read these paragraphs carefully, objectively, and with “reason” and without the excess of “emotion” that many bring to their thinking about Anaïs Nin.
I urge them to read the concluding paragraphs on p. xviii. After that, if they wish to think negatively of the book I wrote, that is certainly their prerogative. But I would like to end this email with two remarks I live by as I practice the craft of biography.
The first is by Desmond MacCarthy, literary critic and friend of Virginia Woolf. He said the biographer must be “the artist under oath.” In other words, the biographer has the moral obligation to tell the truth, but to do so in a book that is every bit as interesting to read as a fine novel.
Woolf herself gets the last word here, for I believe that if I have a Credo, this is it: “Each of us has as many as a thousand selves. Happy the biographer who captures six or seven of them.”
That was what I tried to do as I wrote about the life and work of Anaïs Nin.
The entire interview will be published in A Café in Space, Vol. 7.