A Higher Form of Cannibalism?

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

After writing many biographies and one previous study of how they are written, Carl Rollyson comes to this project with an acute awareness of the paradoxical status of the biography—a perennially popular genre that is simultaneously viewed with suspicion, as invasive and disreputable. His title foregrounds the issue, engaging head-on the view of biography as a “blood sport” practiced by sleazy diggers of dirt. He attacks that stereotype in several ways: by admitting the accuracy of the stereotype in some places; by recounting his own efforts to honestly capture subjects from Lillian Hellman to Norman Mailer to Marilyn Monroe in others; by focusing on the enlightening effect of placing oneself in another's shoes (which he argues is at the heart of biography) in still others.

Rollyson's approach is wide-ranging and eclectic. He moves with equal ease from consideration of low-brow sleaze merchants like Kitty Kelley to canonic writers and works like Boswell and his life of Samuel Johnson, Johnson and his life of Richard Savage, and Richard Ellman and his biography of James Joyce. In addition, Rollyson is not shy about including stories behind the biographies that he has written, sharing insider's accounts of the jousting and questionable maneuvers that he used in pursuit of Martha Gellhorn and Susan Sontag, among others.

The greatest virtue of A Higher Form of Cannibalism?: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography is in its honesty. Rollyson comes across as a semi-cad whom the reader cannot stay mad at, even as he advances sometimes deplorable and inconsistent arguments. Perhaps the best example is his treatment of Kitty Kelley. He highlights her incompetence as a writer, and admits that she deals in evil, because, he believes, “she is evil, and it takes one to know one.” Then he goes on to praise her work, and lists a series of charges of which he exonerates her even as he finds her guilty. Rollyson closes by cheerfully admitting that writing biography “is a shameless profession,” and the reader can only agree, and seek out one of Rollyson's other biographies.