A Letter to My Future Biographer
Oct 21 2012
Dear Authorized Biographer,
If you are reading this then you already know: My legacy as a once-in-a-generation literary genius has stood the test of time. My unexpected and politically significant death burnished my reputation as an eerily prescient novelist, beloved cultural voice, and transformative sexual figure. My iconic likeness and aphorisms grace tote bags and coffee mugs, museums, dormitory walls, city hall plaques, and silver coke spoons.
Best of luck as you labor beneath the weight of past award-winning scholarship. Thank you for ignoring my quiet record of good deeds and selfless civic involvement while reheating all the classic bon mots, group sex, and scuffles with Wikipedia administrators.
Have they completed construction on the McGrath Memorial Wing of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas-Austin or is my widow, Haven Garner Warren McGrath, still steadfastly insistent on a third atrium?
As my biographer, you face two daunting tasks: 1) follow a series of clues, each one more infuriatingly complex than the last, leading to my so-called “Black Book,” which details sexual conquests and clandestine meetings with other cultural influencers and 2) illuminate that final fiction, my public image, with a gentle and reassuring light.
In regards to the first, I apologize for all the booby traps and ninja regiments on stand-by. The second task may be less of an exhausting physical challenge, but it is just as crucial to the project’s success. Molded by highly trained PR agents and tended to by lapdog critics, lazy prize boards, and ivory tower sycophants, my persona is a priceless commodity dear to my readers and literary history at large. As I’m sure you’re aware, I am simultaneously remembered as a noble Utopian oracle and a wild-eyed maverick with a penchant for barbiturates, blondes, and impulse island purchases. You are merely my latest brand ambassador.
My legions of cultish admirers want reinforcement of their pre-conceived notions from an accumulation of banal factoids and everyday minutia. They want to identify potential connections between my life and my art and grow closer to the Michael McGrath they have constructed piecemeal from my fiction and related promotional materials, their own subconscious memory associations, and the various actors who have portrayed me in film over the last half century. They want to solve the little mysteries I left in my wake. What was I doing in Mexico between 2014-2016? Who was my masked mystery date at the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 awards dinner? Who initiated the infamous orgy at that MacArthur conference? Which exiled dictator served as Master of Ceremonies at my Bohemian Grove roast?
Dead writers’ reputations frequently survive biographies that illustrate severe disconnects between private and public selves. Perhaps you were known as a soft-spoken Midwestern mega-genius, but your bio reveals a taste for recently sober women and a generous heaping of bullshit sprinkled throughout your wildly celebrated non-fiction. Or perhaps you were a kooky, curly headed anti-war guru who preached kindness and secular humanity while constantly fucking over family members, friends, and business partners.
My biography will be a shrine to this financially lucrative fictional construct. Buy your candles in bulk. But sometimes a facade, no matter how meticulously crafted, melts beneath even this blatantly flattering spotlight. To ensure that this fate does not befall your project, I have provided the following guide.
It needs to be clear that a freakishly great talent can spring from anywhere. In my case, I managed to succeed despite a humble upper middle class upbringing, with minimal connections to relevant artistic movements or communities.
Those around me slowly come to understand that they are witnessing first hand the rapid development of a genius. Dramatize these realizations to comical effect while hinting at the origins of certain sexual quirks.
I assume most of my publically acknowledged sex partners will be happy to contribute. Explain that these interviews are exempt from their original non-disclosure agreements.
Many writers betray their closest allies (agents, editors, publishers, business partners, first wives, children, parents) because they have been poisoned by years of rejection and failure. My case is slightly different, as my efforts were greeted with immediate acclaim.
It’s important that it be clear that I could have succeeded at ANY field in which I chose to focus my attention. Much like a highly touted high school quarterback who is a first round draft pick for the Yankees but ultimately jumps straight to the NBA, I chose fiction writing after considering a wide variety of factors. This was NOT my only skill. I hold countless patents, play the piano, advise elected officials, and count cards.
My family should be depicted as a bland support network whose individual members are doomed to quiet, comfortable lives spent guiding my estate through various complicated tax loopholes.
Obviously I was a hard worker, but I was also constantly inspired. Writing came easily to me, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t respect the craft. I expect my biographer will find this one of the harder truths to communicate, if only because you’ll be so dumbfounded by the speed at which I produced these remarkable cultural touchstones.
Once writers become successful they like to dole out the same awful advice that they hated receiving when they were still struggling. I’ve published six volumes worth of this advice (collections of my long-running column in The New Yorker), so just choose the most obnoxiously out-of-touch bits and move on, as you will need all of your remaining time and energy to defeat the ninjas, jump the moat and solve the riddle that will unlock the gate to the labyrinth containing the Black Book.
I’m confident that in the end your biography will walk that familiar fine line between adulation and Access Hollywood. But my messy humanity has always been on full display, my warts long celebrated. It’s the so-called saints of the literary world that cause problems. Their bios leave fans disillusioned, stripped of the façade they didn’t even realize they held so dear. Human lives—even those of very successful artists—do not have the same narrative tug or artificial complexities as the subject’s characters and stories. But we want them anyway.
So give them what they want, but leave them what they need.
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