(This review first appeared in Open Letters Monthly.)
Too many biographies of writers do a disservice to their subjects by encouraging a preoccupation with the writer’s life at the expense of renewed appreciation of the work. Some few biographies no doubt do manage to chronicle the life in such a way that it expands our understanding of the work, especially by clarifying the writer’s own thinking about it. But the typical writer’s biography seems to proceed on the assumption that tracing out the narrative of the writer’s life is just as important as reckoning with the narratives he or she created—the latter of which, of course, being the only reason we would have interest in a writer in the first place.
Shouting Down the Silence, David C. Dougherty’s biography of Stanley Elkin, does its subject a disservice by being such a terrible book that it is hard to imagine it could either enhance appreciation of Elkin’s fiction for those already acquainted with it or persuade those unfamiliar with it that he is a writer worth their attention. Since this latter group was already disappointingly large during Elkin’s lifetime and only grows larger in the years following his premature death, a book about Stanley Elkin ought to remind us that he was one of the most gifted writers of his time, a prodigiously dynamic stylist with an uproariously inventive imagination to match. In a period of American fiction (specifically the 1960s and 1970s) devoted to audacity of style and an unabashedly comic outlook, Elkin might have been the most audacious and the most aggressively comedic, a central fact of Elkin’s work that his biographer should prominently emphasize. Yet in his final chapter, Dougherty writes merely that “one purpose of this biography is to gather useful information” should Elkin’s “stock rise.” This seems remarkably passive if Elkin’s fading influence is as real and as troubling as Dougherty seems (correctly) to believe. One might think that someone who is both Elkin’s biographer and a notable scholar of Elkin’s work would use the opportunity to produce a biography of Elkin at a time when his legacy is uncertain to support a larger effort to prevent the writer from falling into irrelevance or losing his proper place in American literary history. Instead he has given us a listless chronicle of the course Elkin’s life took once he began writing short stories and eventually attracted the attention of publishers.
We might ask why it is important to “gather information” about this process. Considering that the information Dougherty gathers is not put into service of elucidating Elkin’s work, it’s difficult to know why he thinks it will prove valuable once Elkin’s fiction has been rediscovered. Implicitly Dougherty seems to believe that should Elkin regain the status he deserves, readers will want to know about the man, separate from their reading of his novels. This may, in fact, be true — but ought a literary biography merely accede to this sort of interest, or should it make some attempt to reinforce interest in the work? If readers are more likely to turn to biography than to critical studies as supplemental reading, perhaps the biographer, especially if he is also a literary critic, could use the form to persuade readers that a critical perspective can prove more rewarding than the collection of details about the writer’s life.
Even if we think the primary purpose of biography is to gather such details, Shouting Down the Silence is still remarkably inattentive to the features of Elkin’s work most readers have found most distinctive — those signature elements no reader can fail to notice but which can also seem so extreme in Elkin’s hands that surely many would appreciate an attempt to account for them. Elkin has been called a difficult writer, a writer not always considerate of readers accustomed to a passive reading experience, and Dougherty does very little to explain why readers should put aside such an expectation when reading Elkin’s fiction, in exchange for a more demanding experience but also one that is in its own way frequently exhilarating.
The most insistent and unmistakable attribute of Elkin’s fiction is its overflowing language, its cascading figures, accumulating modifiers, neologisms, and serpentine sentences. Elkin is not just a stylist but a wizard of words, a stylist of seemingly inexhaustible resources and utterly singular in his characteristic moves. Near the end of The Franchiser (1976), protagonist Ben Flesh reflects on a “new dispensation” that is likely to make him obsolete:
He was an old-timer. If he lived he would live crippled in the new world, would tch tch and my my at its strange new ways. Modern times country-courthousing him, old-timering his personality, shoving shucks in his vocabulary, thrusting by gollys into his mouth, whooshes, goldarns, I’ll be’s, all the phony awe and mock disgust. For he knew no other way, only the old vaudeville routines of the stagy quaint. Why, this was a problem. Gee whiz, shucks by golly whoosh goldarn. I’ll be. I’ll be.
Elkin claimed Faulkner as one of his stylistic inspirations, but Faulkner’s style is cadenced and oratorical in its rhetorical excess, while Elkin’s is both more freewheeling and more precise. Elkin makes language perform in a surprising way when Ben Flesh anticipates his personality being “old-timered” and finding the impending changes “shoving shucks in his vocabulary,” but in each case the verbal flourish is also memorably evocative of the phenomenon Ben Flesh is contemplating. Elkin’s excess is central to his aesthetic ambition, which is to animate his loose-jointed narratives through the constant revelations of a boundlessly vital style.
It is further telling that Ben Flesh thinks of himself as attuned to “the old vaudeville routines of the stagy quaint,” since the second, complementary feature of Elkin’s work that warrants commentary is its thoroughgoing, vaudeville-like comedy. So dedicated to this kind of “low,” gag-filled comedy is his fiction that some readers might not have considered Elkin altogether “serious,” perhaps partly accounting for one group of readers to whom Elkin failed to appeal in terms of commercial popularity, a failure in general that he seems to have felt acutely. (“I am very discouraged,” Elkin wrote about the sales of A Bad Man (1967), in a letter quoted by Dougherty. “This is the case for my discouragement. I had not frankly expected to get rich, with a best-seller. …I will never write a best seller…. However, I would have thought that my reviews…would break that barrier, to reach, with luck, sales of ten thousand maybe.”)
But Elkin was one of the most serious of writers, whose seriousness of purpose is expressed by a refusal to take anything seriously. All subjects, including, say, the looming death of children, can be approached through the same kinds of comedy routines, hilarious patter, and rhetorical exaggeration. Near the beginning of The Magic Kingdom (1985), protagonist Eddy Bale, whose young son has recently died, manages an audience with the Queen to plead for assistance for his plan to take a group of terminally ill children to Disney World. Before seeing the Queen, Eddy tells a young noble about the plan:
The child hears him out and concedes, “That’s a smashing plot!
“Thank you, sir.”
“Blast, I wish I’d the lolly, but I don’t come into my inheritance for just ages yet. Your troubles would be over if I did.”
“You’re very gracious, Your Grace.”
“Not a bit of it, Mister Bale. We all admired young Liam.”
“Twenty thousand,” he says, considering, stroking his chin, imagining ways it might yet be done.
“Yes?” Bale says.
“Well, he says, it’s just a thought, of course.”
“We could put on a horse show.”
“A horse show.”
“Or sell lemonade.”
“Lemonade’s a thought.”
Elkin’s comic vision encompasses a world that calls for these devices to be adequately rendered, so permeated by suffering and misfortune, and ultimately so senseless, does it seem to be that the comic routines offer the only relief from this suffering.
We could regard Elkin’s style as reinforcement of the comic vision, or the vision as the necessary consequence of the style, but while a biography could not and need not attempt to determine which came first (style and vision are probably inextricably linked), it certainly could at least address those aspects of the work, perhaps examining the factors in Elkin’s background or his psychological makeup that might help explain how the question arises. Perhaps the biographer could simply survey Elkin’s own comments on the subject, whether in print, speeches, or recorded conversations, attempting to clarify what the writer thought he was after as a stylist and a literary comedian, whether he had a fully-formed, articulated literary aesthetic. But Dougherty does none of this, instead becoming preoccupied with sales figures, Elkin’s always dashed hopes of writing screenplays (or of having his fiction adapted into film), and his persistent frustration with his lack of widespread popularity as a writer of fiction. In an all-too typical move, for example, Dougherty begins a chapter by noting that “The decade’s final years were the most prosperous and controversial of Elkin’s writing life,” explaining further that “Despite his disappointments about the movie of ‘The Bailbondsman’ and the failure to film The Art of War [an Elkin screenplay], renewed interest in filming his works flourished as his most influential work to date, The Living End, amused, delighted or shocked various audiences” – as if the most meaningful sign of Elkin’s success was the fact that The Living End was drawing the attention of film producers, not that more people were finding themselves “delighted” with Elkin’s fiction.
Of his surpassing gifts as a stylist we learn only that he possessed them, and about his skill with comedy we learn that he often employed it in person, but as for how he brought it into his work we are left at best to witness it for ourselves from the few passages Dougherty quotes along the way. Exactly why Elkin believed his approach worthwhile in a “literary” writer is a question left both unasked and unanswered.
Since the subjects related to Elkin’s life as a writer that Dougherty does raise are so tangential and ephemeral, it becomes even more difficult to determine just how Shouting Down the Silence will be useful when Elkin’s work is indeed rediscovered and established as the important work it is. Moreover, even readers who might rest content with “information” about the writer and his circumstances are not likely to find this book very satisfying, either. No doubt the most daunting challenge Stanley Elkin faced in his adult life was the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis he received while still a relatively young man, as well as the subsequent effort to cope with the disease. Again we learn from Dougherty the fact that Elkin received such a diagnosis, and he occasionally reminds us that Elkin suffered, but we ultimately get very little sense of what it must have been like to live with this fact, certainly not how the gathering signs of physical decline and early death might have informed Elkin’s attitude toward his work, particularly his sense of the relevance of the comic vision he nevertheless continued to pursue. In discussing The Franchiser, for example, a novel with an MS-afflicted protagonist, Dougherty avers that “Elkin’s insistence that the novel isn’t autobiographical seems disingenuous,” but provides no sense of what “autobiographical” might mean in this context other than quoting another scholar suggesting the book must be autobiographical because, well, Elkin uses MS as a “cultural symbol” and he himself had the disease! Of Elkin’s family life we really learn next to nothing: his wife, Joan, who by most accounts played a crucial role in allowing Elkin to maintain a writing life, makes no strong impression at all in Dougherty’s recital, while Elkin’s three adopted children exist in name only.
The book does provide some insight into Elkin’s relationship with academe, if only because Elkin was among the first cohort of writers to spend an entire career as a teacher of creative writing and it would thus be impossible to chronicle his life without relating his experiences as both writer and teacher. Dougherty doesn’t much take advantage of Elkin’s twinned professions to examine the way serious writers have become more or less dependent on teaching creative writing to enable them to write as they wish without undue concern about commercial success, but it is conceivable that Shouting Down the Silence in its cumulative account of Elkin’s work on the faculty of Washington University, as well as his various supplemental appointments as visiting professor or writer-in-residence and his life on the academic reading circuit, could be of some use to critics and scholars looking more intensively at the effect academic creative writing has had on American fiction. Perhaps it is not surprising that a biography written by an academic and published by a university press would prove most illuminating about the subject’s relationship to the academy. It is disappointing, to say the least, that it manages to illuminate very little else about its subject, a writer who deserves the kind of consideration this book almost willfully refuses to provide.