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November 05, 2004

"Isherwood" and Book Publishing

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Coming soon to a bookstore near you: a major new biography of the English writer Christopher Isherwood.

Do you care for Isherwood's work? I'm a fan. I've read four of his books -- not enough, but still -- and I've loved them all. To be honest, I'm a very, very big admirer. Though Isherwood's certainly a respected writer, he's also generally considered something like "awfully good, but second tier, at least next to the true greats." Me, I'm betting that one day soon Isherwood will be recognized as a giant. His work is very enjoyable in its own right -- a model of easy-seeming, relaxed sophistication. But it has also been super-influential; it helped set the pattern for much modern gay writing, and for much modern nongay writing too. The whole intimate-but-without-crowding-you, casual-and-amusing-without-being-slight, it-reads-like-a-letter-from-a-friend thing -- as far as I've been able to tell, much of this comes out of Isherwood. It seems to me that his approach and tone have been as influential as Chekhov's and Hemingway's -- as influential, that is, as the most influential of modern writing.

Despite his easy, Hockney-esque surfaces, Isherwood was incisive too. And like Hockney and some other gay artists (Cole Porter, W.H. Auden), Isherwood made art that has tough and strong roots. (As a faghag friend of mine used to say: "There's no one as tough as some of these faggy gay guys.") I could be wrong, of course, but I'm betting that Isherwood will go on being read and being influential long after most of James Joyce's books have been consigned to the dustiest of shelves. I like much of Joyce but -- given the way the culture is going -- I find it hard to imagine that in 50 years "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake" will be understandable to more than a very, very few people. Isherwood, on the other hand? If people are still reading longform prose, Isherwood's likely to be experienced with pleasure still.

It's impossible to make these points without spoiling the breezy-though-substantial "minor" pleasures Isherwood offers. The last thing I'd want to do is inflate Isherwood's importance, or to oversell the pleasures of his work, fabulous though they are. So it's probably best to forget that I ever wrote the above few paragraphs.

By the way, Isherwood's companion of many years, Don Bachardy, is a superb visual artist. Still alive -- Isherwood died in 1986 -- Bachardy's a portraitist who works from life, often using friends and acquaintances as subjects. He works in "minor" modes, mainly in pen or pencil on paper. He's an amateur sketch artist, in other words. But what an amateur, and what a sketch artist. Not only does he have the rare gift of being able to -- seemingly effortlessly -- "get" a likeness, he's as shrewd, witty and economical a visual guy as Isherwoord was a writer. (I imagine that artfans who love the work of Richard Diebenkorn, Paul Cadmus, and Wayne Thiebaud would enjoy Bachardy too.) It's a pity Bachardy's drawings lose so much of their subtlety and penetration when viewed on the computer screen. Judging from what I've run across, the computer age isn't being kind to his drawings, which seem to require first-class ink-on-paper to reproduce well; the portrait below of Isherwood (click on it and you'll be able to see a larger version) comes across better than most of his work. I lifted the image from this site here, where you can look at a few more Bachardy drawings too. It's dismaying how much of their life -- especially the remarkable life in the eyes -- they lose on the screen, though. I'm really pleased to own this out-of-print book of Bachardy drawings.

Isherwood by Bachardy

For all I know, the new biography of Isherwood is wonderful. Isherwood seems like a great subject: a rich-kid bohemian who was nonetheless a real worker; who traveled adventurously; and who, in that gay way, seemed to know everyone. He was in Berlin in the decadent '20s; he settled in L.A. in the '40s; he worked on numerous movies (which he had unusual respect for as an art form); and he was a convert to the philosophical form of Hinduism known as Vedanta. From the few pages I've sampled, Peter Parker -- the English author of this biography -- seems to be a clear and energized writer. And he obviously has excellent taste; a previous book was a biography of another major/minor gay author, J.R. Ackerley, creator of the eccentric and moving "My Father and Myself", "We Think the World of You," and "My Dog Tulip."

But, y'know, despite my interest, I'm just not gonna have time to read this biography. Parker's book is roughly 800 pages long. 800 pages! -- and about an author who generally wrote fairly short. I pulled the four Isherwood books I've read off my shelf; together they total fewer pages than the biography alone does. And probably far fewer words: Isherwood was often a very spare writer.

There are so many things that could be said here. For one: Parker's book will make an impressive gift to bring along when The Wife and I visit our gay friends, so maybe I'll wind up buying a few copies after all. Many of our gay friends adore gossipy, culture-centric doorstops, and it doesn't hurt that, along with everything else, Isherwood was one of the first well-known artists to admit publicly to being gay; he was a hero to early (well, '60s-and-'70s-era) gay-lib types. So the biography will be of intense gay-identity/cultural-history interest to many of our gay friends.

But what does this biography represent to straight ol' me? I look at the book and think: sheesh, instead of reading this, I could read four more of Isherwood's own books. Resourceful media-world flunky that I am, I've managed to secure myself a freebie "review copy" of the book. So I'll poke around in it a bit. I'm certainly curious to read about decadent Berlin. I'll taste-test the passages about about Isherwood and Bachardy; it's often eyebrow-raising to learn about the kinds of arrangements long-term gay partners work out for themselves. And I'll nose around the Isherwood-and-Vedanta chapters; Isherwood's relationship with his guru, Swami Prabhavananda, was an interesting one. But I won't read too many of these Vedanta pages. I'll save my energies instead for the books Isherwood himself wrote about Vedanta, and about his relationship with Prabhavananda.

The truth is that, despite being a fan, I'd never buy a copy of this book for myself. Which makes me wonder: how many copies of this book do you imagine Random House will be able to sell? Are there really enough gay-history and Isherwood fans to justify publishing the book?

Which reminds me: do you ever give cultural works the "if they can't interest me" test? Here's how it works. I marvel at the contempo poetry world. I've got a real interest in poetry. I've read a decent amount of the standard canon; I get classic modernism; I even have friends who write poetry and are part of the contempo-poetry scene, which means that I attend real-live poetry readings a couple of times a year. Still, when I look at most contempo poetry, I shake my head. Much of it's wimpily overfamiliar -- abstract lyricism with lots of hard-to-swallow epiphanies. And the rest of it seems to be academic, theoretical, and impenetrable, written to wow other poetry addicts and concerned with issues that mean nothing whatsoever to me. Which leads me to have such thoughts as: if contempo poetry can't bring itself to reach out to an interested, reasonably-informed reader like me, what the hell does contempo poetry think it's doing? (Answer, I suppose: "advancing the art form.")

An egocentric question, I'm sure, but one that's sometimes hard to resist asking. And I definitely can't resist asking it when I look at this Isherwood bio: if the book's publishers can't interest me in reading it, what the hell do they think they're doing? Bravo to the author for all his good work, by the way. Bravo to Random House for publishing the book. And what the hell business is it of mine to ask such a question anyway? Still: what the hell could they be thinking?

Publishing this book in this way strikes me as all-too-characteristic of how unresourceful much of the trade-book publishing business is. To cut to the chase: if I were running Random House, I'd publish a big Isherwood bio too. But I wouldn't publish it all by itself; I'd also publish, at the same time, a much shorter, more visual, and more inexpensive version of the same book. I've never been able to understand why book publishers don't require the authors of giant biographies to deliver shorter and more audience-friendly versions of their books too. 800 pages on J. P. Morgan? I'm interested in the topic, but I'll never read the book. If the author of a long bio were so immersed in the research and details that she found it difficult to get her material in proper perspective, then why not have her work on the short version with a collaborator?

But, in book-publishing terms, ideas like these mark me as a sleazy, sensationalistic, cheap person who wants to do dirt to that sacred thing, "literature." You should have heard the squawking in 1996, when Penguin announced plans to kick off its "Penguin Lives" series of short biographies. You'd have thought that real readers have nothing else to do with their time than devote themselves to plowing through thousand-page biographies.

Have I told you my latest theory about book-publishing people? I followed the biz for 15 years and often scratched my head over the people in it. Who were they? And why were they like that? Industries have general tones and makeups, after all. The military-aerospace-engineering field probably has a different feel than the organic-potato-growing field, for instance. And understanding and knowing something about the tone and makeup of a field can help you understand the kinds of products these industries create. (I blogged here and here about some of the differeneces between book-publishing people and movie-world people.)

My theory now is simply this: that what a lot of what characterizes book publishing is that it's populated by bookish introverts. Pretty swift of me, eh? Anyway, if you think back to English class ... and to that mousily pretty girl who loved Jane Austen ... the one who was so happy when the department gave a tea party on the lawn ... who tee-hee'd naughtily but prissily at literary jokes ... and who always turned in her papers on time. Well, she now works in book publishing. Many exceptions allowed for, by the way -- but the exceptions I've known have been as prone as I am to roll their eyes about what a wallflower the industry they work in is.

Book parties and publishing parties are seldom like that razzmatazz 'do in "Fatal Attraction." They're often dismal, off-white affairs; imagine a get-together where everyone's holding back, and hanging out on the sidelines. While I'm no one's idea of a head-banging party animal, I did spend time in the hippie and punk worlds. And while I fled screaming from Hollywood within months of going there, I do like having some actors and showbiz in my life. So, when I'm at a party, I like gabbing, circulating, and misbehaving. I pitch in. Which means that I spent most bookworld parties feeling like oafish Mr. Potentially Embarrassing.

The fact is that book-publishing people don't relate to books the way the rest of us do. As booky and verbal as we can be, to you and me books are part of the good life. They're akin to movies, cars, food, music, travel; they're a business, they're a pleasure, they're information, they're a hobby, they're a resource. And sure, yes, occasionally, they move, delight, and awe. But to many of the people in book publishing, books are something else entirely, a world apart; these are often people who want to live inside books. To me, books are part of a broad cultural conversation that I love dipping in and out of. But the conversation your typical bookbiz person wants to be part of takes place on a distant mountaintop, and is between her and her favorite author.

Bookbiz people often want to push the larger world away. They can't help it; they're introverts. They often regret the trashier and business ends of publishing; they often regret having to deal with other people at all. The recent memoir by the porn star Jenna Jameson has been an interesting case. Much of the publishing world resisted the book, arguing that it simply wouldn't sell. It took a notoriously hardboiled editor to commit to the book, which did in fact become a huge hit. Have you looked at Jenna's book? While I'm not about to make a literary case for it, I do think it's a brilliantly conceived, executed, designed, and marketed publishing project. And what's wrong with that? Shoot me for being led by its success to this thought: gee, maybe there's something to be learned here about how books might reach the contemporary media-surfing audience. Maybe these youngsters aren't as book-resistant as they're often said to be; maybe what's needed is for books to adapt to them.

But such thoughts make me Mr. Lowclass. Forget that much that much firstrate American fiction -- James M. Cain, Budd Schulberg, Donald Westlake -- has been as frankly commercial as any movie. When and if a publishing-world person does emerge from his cocoon, his mind is still on ... I dunno, Esquire circa 1970. That's for a guy. The generic pub-world woman likes to imagine that underneath the earnest mousiness is some kinky, S&M-ish (but still literary) hot stuff. These are people, in other words, who look to books for ... revelation, justification, deliverance. People who never stop hoping that books will ... Well, I don't know, really. Hard for me to imagine. Set them free, or do that "greatness" thing, or something.

Me, I wish publishing-world people would spend less time fixating on worthiness, and spend more time attending to the tastes, needs, and pleasures of the people their business is serving. It's possible to argue, of course, that publishing-world people are serving their audience, which is an NPRish, bookish thing. And there's no need to lose those readers. But that's a stagnant, aging, and probably shrinking demographic. Why not open the book-consuming audience up too? Kick butt. Get rowdy. Think exploitatively -- and have a good time doing so. Remember how little time most of us have for reading these days. Give people a good time for their money. And learn how to come out of your shell at a party, for god's sake.

I'm pretty certain that the general quality of books would go up and not down if more publishing-world people got over their fixation on high-minded ideas about quality and worth. Balzac and Dickens were entertainers before all else, after all. And Boswell's "Life of Johnson" was nothing if not a rollicking good read. These authors delivered their work in forms and shapes that the audiences of their time found accessible and atttractive, and comprehensible even when challenging. I dunno: are you looking for artists to deliver more than Balzac, Dickens, and Boswell did? Or to go about their writing lives differently?

So: may I have a 200-page biography of Christopher Isherwood, please?

If anyone hasn't yet given Isherwood's writing a try, let me suggest starting with this collection of stories; it was the basis for the movies "I Am A Camera" and "Cabaret." This book would make a good place to start too; it's one of the handful of first-rate novels about making movies. Curious to hear how others have responded to Isherwood's books. After all, I've only read four of them. No, wait: I've also had a good time thumbing around in this collection of interviews with Isherwood. So make that four and a half.

Here's a decent quick biographical sketch of Isherwood. Here's the official Isherwood website, which is full of information and links. Here's a review of the new biography; here's another.



UPDATE: Thanks to Toby, who points out that used copies of Don Bachardy's "One Hundred Drawings" can be found here.

posted by Michael at November 5, 2004


Maybe there's a connection between gay-ness and the deadpan, I am a camera, form of expression. I see that Paul Cadmus is mentioned in the post. His late career, unembellished, "unemotional," line drawings of the male nude are not only beautiful; they have a kind of power that comes with a "just the facts, ma'am" presentation.

Posted by: ricpic on November 6, 2004 10:16 AM

Cyril Connolly once wrote an essay that was very infavourable to both the writing styles of Isherwood and Hemingway. As they lacked their own tone, or something like that. And Connolly cited some paragraphs from the two writers from which it was impossible to tell what was written by whom.

Because I admire Connolly's _Unquiet Grave_ so much, his opinions have long influenced. Until I discovered the power in Hemingway's early short stories. I have neglected Isherwood, even though I own all of his titles [they were never lend from the local library, and thus abandoned. I'll often adopt such books].

On the enormous biographies that are published nowadays: I tend to ignore them because of their size. If the biographer can't weigh the value of his own material, why should I be the one to do it? There's always to much about the younger years in a biography anyway. Whereas few people lead remarkable lives before they left their parents.

Posted by: ijsbrand on November 6, 2004 11:14 AM

Out of print, but not unavailable: One Hundred Drawings.

Posted by: Toby on November 6, 2004 11:34 AM

I am an Isherwood fan as well, although I have some major qualms about "Goodbye to Berlin" Mostly, since he never admits he was having sex and picking boys up in these bars, you can't imaginge WHY he is there. The portraits of other people and life come across wonderfully, but he's a carefully-constructed blank. (in Christopher And His Kind he clears this up, saying he didn't want to include his own gayness in the tales and was trying to create a completely impartial "camera". However, his own brtual honesty about what a stupid young man he was is more entertraining the the blank camera-man).

Have you noticed how the Sally Bowles character gets more camped up and likable as more adaptations of it appear? In the story she's a spoiled, untalented little brat, full of life, funny, but has these overblown romantic ideas about herself and no real world knowelege. By the time you get to the musical Cabaret and the revival, she's a Larger Than Life Bohemian Dahling! The power of art to strip down imperfections and twist people into archetypes....

As for book parties, I remember a line. "Its always a bad idea to get writers together. A bunch of introverted people who observe well and work long hours alone do not a party make." And Mr. Crisp's comment on how artis'ts are horribly dull, it's the people they turn into art that are the most interesting..where else do they get thier ideas?



Posted by: JL on November 6, 2004 2:45 PM

First of all, thanks for these postings. Your postings on the publishing world and Friedrich's postings on art history are such a magnificent free education!

I love your description of publishing parties...all these years, I really did think they were like the one shown in "Fatal Attraction"! So books are an end in and of themselves, created for others like them, huh? It's too bad. You'd think people who really love books would want to concieve of ways to get others to share, even if it means different subjects or book jackets (or lengths). It's almost like editors have just stopped doing their jobs---we can do a bio of Isherwood, but it can't exceed 350 pages---figure it out. It's like hiring a nutritionist who then forgets all about calorie count.

I apologize for such a lowbrow reference, but I remember a line Meg Ryan says in a movie, which sounds like your publishing friends, except they might not have the insight to ask the question. She says, "So many times, things in life remind me of something I read in a book. And I wonder: shouldn't it be the other way around?"

Posted by: annette on November 6, 2004 4:12 PM

Wasn't it Pascal who apologized for writing a long letter, noting that he hadn't had enough time to make it shorter?

I share your aversion to doorstop biographies drowning in minutiae. My sense is this phenomenon is due to an arm's race of sorts in biographies: the biographer wants to write THE definitive biography and so leaves everything in out of fear that someone else will come along, write an even longer biography and become the new definitive title.

Oxford University Press publishes a "Very Short Introductions" series covering a wide range of topics such as intelligence, Roman Britain and world music. I've found these books to be very short indeed, but also much more than mere introductions, as each author works hard to distill his subject down to its essence. A "Very Short Biography" series would be just as useful.

Posted by: Outer Life on November 6, 2004 6:04 PM

How... consumerist of you, Michael.
That's why we, Americans, are so hated everywhere in the world - we bring our accursed mercantile mentality into everything we touch. Don't you think you have social responsibility to educate, to lead, to elevate, er, underpriviledged (read: unwashed) rather than follow their animal-instincts' requests with low-brow published products (to call it books will be abomination)?

OK, OK. Sorry, M, I'm still a bit perplexed after my recent 'flamewar' with liberal "white belly socialists" (not my term).
I have to cool down.

There was a very famous, and justly so, biography series in Russia, "Life of Remarkable People" It was never in doorstop format, written by best specialists in specific subject, fairly representative, not didactic and not political (big plus in Soviet conditions).

I would love it if something similar was written by Americans about American Remarkable People - in business, engineering, architecture as well as in literature and art.

Posted by: Tatyana on November 6, 2004 7:20 PM

Ricpic -- What is the connection between "I am a camera" and gayness? I've wondered too. Does it have to do with the careful editing-of-personality many gays do, or once had to do, anyway? I once knew a wonderful gay writer who had some of Isherwood's qualities. The writing was very relaxed and elegant and insightful. And as a person, he had that aging-boyish thing going that Isherwood did too. I knew him well enough, though, to know about how much pressure he lived with, and how much he tortured himself to create that public act. Inside he was all screwed up -- histrionic, full of self-hate and self-pity. The dapper persona was a wonderful creation, but the person who came up wtih it and maintained it was exhausted by the effort. I found myself thinking, gosh, I'm much messier and cruder as a public figure -- but maybe allowing myself the messiness helps me live with myself more easily. I wonder if we'll be seeing these kinds of superspiffy personalities much longer, now that gays are more out than they once were. You don't see as many camp queens these days as you did when the lid was on tighter. Maybe we won't be seeing as many Isherwoods and Cole Porters either.

IJSbrand -- I like Connolly too, who's also a pretty spiffy writer. I'd forgotten he wasn't an Isherwood fan, so thanks for the reminder. I wonder what it was he didn't lik about Isherwood's writing. Quoting Isherwood is probably a bit unfair. Since he worked so hard to make the surface of his writing casual, easy and unremarkable, it would just make him look ... unremarkable. As for bios, I've been told that there are countries and cultures that don't have anything like the love of bios that Anglo-American culture does. In France, for instance, biographies are barely a genre at all, or so I've been told. We seem to love the narrative, the sweep, the gossip, the sensation of peeping behind the curtain. Plus we're so very empirically oriented: facts, facts and more facts. I wonder if some other cultures just don't get the same kick out of all that. There's also the notorious American love of getting a lot for your money. Publishers in this country often try to pad books -- to make them look thicker than they actually are -- to give potential buyers the impression that they'd be getting a lot of book (as in paper and ink) for the money.

Toby -- Thanks for the link. It's a wonderful book.

JL -- It is funny the way Sally Bowles evolves through her various incarnations. I wonder what Isherwood thought about that. Hey, maybe the biography will tell. That's a funny line about book parties.

Annette -- I attended a handful of glitzy publishing parties over the years. But even at those the smoothies were almost never the writers, let alone the midlevel publishing people. The smoothies were usually celebs or business types (extraversts who know how to turn on the wattage and work crowds). Most run of the mill book and publishing parties are held in someone's apartment. 30 people attend, most of them looking foolish or like they'd rather be home alone, or like they're feeling poisonus because their own book party was attended by only 20 people. And the wine's usually bad. The publishing parties I enjoyed most were thrown by people in the comix and graphic-novels field. These were lowdown, beer-drinking, garage-band-type affairs, held in bars with the music cranked up too loud. And some southern-writer book parties were a lot of fun -- those southerners! They sure do love to get together and have a good time. The southern-writing scene can be a gas; I hear the Texas-writing scene can be too, but I never had the chance. But that's probably me -- I like a party where you feel free to make a fool of yourself. Mainstream Manhattan book-publishing people -- who I often like, and who have their sweetness -- are often a bit ,,, proper, or something. Maybe it's just that so many are introverted. I have my introverted, thoughtful side too, but when I go out, I'm going to do my best to have a good time.

Outer Life -- That's a great Pascal quote, tks. I think you're right about the motivations behind a lot of these fat biographies. And I think there may be a few other, related elements as well. One being that, sheesh, I've done all this work, and this material really needs to be out there in public, and not in a file cabinet somewhere. Which is why it seems to me that the best thing to do would be to issue biographies in two versions, the long (for cultists and the libraries, mainly) one, and a short one for everyday interested people. Ten years back I was optimistic about CD-ROMs for that reason: seemed to me they'd be able to supply a variety of narrative and info layers, from a quick overview all the way down to primary sources. You could interact with them as you saw fit, skimming a short version of passages you weren't much interested, but diving in to check out the details in other places. Too bad the medium died.

Tatyana -- Consumer-nation, that's us! The Wife's from LA . She lives with me in NYC now, and loves the place. But she does get wistful sometimes about LA. "The retail experience there is so much better," she sighs.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 7, 2004 1:21 AM


I haven't read your long and interesting-looking post in detail yet (am in the office, will print it out for the subway ride home) but I fnd the timing interesting.

The edition of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras that came out under Isherwood and Prabhavanda's name is my favorite of the ones I've studied. I don't know how much of the commentary Isherwood actually wrote (I got my copy in India and it doesn't even have his name on it), but I certainly find myself thinking while I'm reading it that a guy who had a hand in this, *and* had Cabaret based on his memoirs, must have had an *interesting* life.

Posted by: Alan Little on November 8, 2004 8:03 AM

Alan -- Sally Bowles and yoga wisdom -- that's a really good point that you don't run into such combos everyday. I like the Isherwood-Prabhavananda Patanjali a lot too. But I'm still catching up -- I haven't read any other version of Patanjali yet. Are there others you're a special fan of?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 8, 2004 6:37 PM

Michael - I read the whole thing. I can't comment on lit culture because that's a scene I've never been involved in, but I completely agree with your general views on lit fic - there was no such thing when Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were writing. (I don't know about the Russians though - I have a hard time imagining Dostoyevsky ever selling blockbusters)

Other editions of Patanjali I've looked at are Iyengar, Desikachar and Feuerstein. I and D are of course great yoga teachers, and Feuerstein is a serious yoga philosophy scholar - but for down-to-earth, good hearted commonsense I'm still most comfortable with Prabhavanda (and Isherwood?). Did he write anything else that I should be looking at?

Posted by: Alan Little on November 9, 2004 4:06 AM

I haven't read all of Isherwood's books but my personal favorite is "Down there on a Visit," a group of thematically-linked stories about friends or acquaintances travelling through their own personally-created hell. Highly recommended.

Agree about doorstop biographies. Deadening to the intellect and less fun than reality TV.

Posted by: JT on November 15, 2004 5:34 PM

I've obviously been to the wrong bookish parties. Given your vast experience, it must be that those I scammed my way into were anomalous. The people you're talking about did not seem wallflowers. They seemed not only the type of ass whose deep and unfriendly need to be controlling prevented their just cutting up and going along with whatever was going on, but also the sad type who lacked the skills to be controlling and so just stood around looking, as you say, poisonous while the rest of us you know, partied. Are you saying that bookish-party people don't go up on the roof? Everywhere else, parties wind up in the kitchen. In New York, at least the way I do it, the place to be is on the roof with the smokers.

Outer Life is probably right about 8,000-word biographies. Wouldn't it be nice if biographers aimed for insight instead of detail? Isn't there a Python sketch about this....

Posted by: j.c. on November 17, 2004 12:29 AM

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