Terrorists and Novelists
A book review which does no more than summarize and then criticize (or praise) the work at hand is necessarily ephemeral: its fate is tied to the fate of the book that occasions it. These twenty-nine pieces by Diane Johnson, all written since 1975, were prompted by suggestions from the editors of The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the New Statesman, and the Times Literary Supplement. They are, however, far more impressive as a collection than as individual pieces. Johnson, herself a novelist and biographer, writes with fine intelligence and clarity about the intersections of truth, fiction, and ethics. She cares about both the craft of writing and the motives and cultural contexts of writers. She has put thought and care into the generalizations that control her evaluations. The collection thus speaks critically and coherently to some of the central concerns of contemporary literature.
The essays are arranged in three sections. The first discusses the ways in which fictional techniques such as narrative structure, selection, persona, and distance influence nonfictional forms such as autobiography, biography, letters, and diaries. Among the books reviewed here are Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1976), Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (1979), Helen Moglen’s 1978 biography of Charlotte Brontë, new translations or editions of letters by George Sand, Gustave Flaubert, and Colette, the diaries of Rose La Touche, and the letters of Alice James. The second section examines the convergence of reality and fiction (which Johnson finds typical of contemporary writing), especially when recent history is used as substance or springboard for the imagination: Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979), Beryl Bainbridge’s Young Adolph (1978), Doris Lessing’s Stories (1978), Erica Jong’s How to Save Your Own Life (1977), Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer (1977), Saul Bellow’s The Dean’s December (1982), E. L. Doctorow’s Loon Lake (1980), Donald Barthelme’s Great Days (1979). The final grouping covers books that are demonstrably nonfiction and often on matters of public interest: the trial of Patty Hearst, the deaths at Jonestown, C. D. B. Bryan’s Friendly Fire (1976), Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will (1975). In this section, evaluation of the books is often subordinated to discussion of the issues that lie behind the books—and, once more, the question of truth and the author’s techniques and motives in mediating truth are of paramount importance.
Johnson’s treatment of biographical accuracy is particularly fascinating because she has grappled with the problems herself. In Lesser Lives (1972), a book about Mary Ellen Peacock, the first wife of novelist George Meredith, Johnson scrupulously (and typographically) distinguished between letters and documentation on the one hand and her own interpretations, commentaries, observations, and imaginative speculations on the other. Fiction, she observes at one point in this collection of essays, may well be truer than nonfiction. The biographer, reading through a memoir or a collection of letters, is able to see patterns that were not evident to the person who lived the life. The conscious autobiographer, furthermore, adopts some of the techniques of fiction, creates a persona, chooses a strategy for self-dramatization, and imposes a structure on events. Johnson’s own experiences as a biographer and her familiarity with contemporary structuralist and deconstructionist criticism give her the skills to read through a text in enlightening ways, as, for...
(The entire section is 1535 words.)