From an Editor’s Desk: It’s Not Who You Know…Really It Isn’t

As music editor for Rowman and Littlefield, I receive any number of proposals for memoirs from musicians that tell not so much their story as that of the musical luminaries with whom they worked. Unfortunately, the aura of fame often extends only as far as the actual celebrity. As I wrote one agent regarding a possible book by a temporary drummer for a once famous act:

I know the uphill battle you will be facing when pitching a book of this sort, which I commonly refer to as the “memoir of the greatest sideman you've never heard of.” It’s tough to place books about the near famous rather than the famous. As Mel Brooks once quipped: “There are two types of people in this world: the famous and the near famous. The famous are just what you’d expect—president, popes, Hollywood stars. The near famous are those who want to be near the famous.”


Not long before this proposal, I had received another from a prospective author that was to be brazenly titled Confessions of a Shameless Name-dropper. Unlike other memoirists who try to sneak this stuff by, this author was refreshingly open about the matter, and even though I had to credit him with his bravado, I had to school him in the realities of the market (which he took with remarkable grace). Here’s what I wrote:

Since I handle lots of music titles—and of all sorts, including memoirs of the type you’re proposing—I wanted to follow up. I tend toward the brutally honest, so, as I warn some of my authors, put on your elephant skin. Here we go…

You are not the first and not by any means the last author who has proposed a book about his adventures in the music business and the many great names with whom he may have worked. The problem is a simple one: names of note in a book do not translate into sales when the book itself is not written by one of those noted names. Even forewords and endorsements by “big” names are no substitute for the real deal. A book about one’s working relationship with Renee Fleming or Mick Jagger is simply not the same as a book by either one of them.

The net result is that these titles don’t ever do nearly as well as their authors predict. Sometimes they don’t even do as well as we predict—and we at least have access to good sales data about this kind of thing.

The bad news is that star-power-by-association is a bit of a myth, and unless you are one of those rare behind-the-scenes individuals who made those stars into stars rather than just someone who worked alongside them—think Russell Simmons of Def Jam Records or Motown producer Berry Gordy—a book documenting one’s musical career through the great artists whose paths crossed yours is a tough sell.

I should note that this isn’t to say there aren’t exceptions. But those exceptions are few and far between. If the story told is so compelling or uniquely wrought that the work shines almost in spite of the name-dropping, a book editor might sign on. But in that case the sign-on is not to the dropped names but the literary quality of the work itself.

Of course, another possible approach is if the book editor not only thinks the story compelling enough to publish but also believes that real marketing muscle (and real editorial attention) will overcome possible lack of interest. In this scenario the book is, you might say, forced upon the public by being oversold or sensationalized. A case in point is Chicago Review Press’s publication in 2005 of I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie. Following in the wake of this sexual tell-all, which CRP managed to get behind well enough, author Pamela des Barres was able to write a follow-up and even publish an anthology of confessions from other groupies.

But, my, my, how quickly this kind of self-pumping confessional—groupies as muses…really?—ages when you look at how autobiographies of this ilk now clutter the world of the self-published. After Warren Zevon’s wife, Crystal, published her tell-all—since we now swim in a sea of spousal memoirs that are hardly better than shoulder-rubbing memoirs (or more than shoulders, if you opt to work from des Barres’ playbook)—it is not surprising that there should follow a self-published confessional, too, about Zevon’s illegitimate child with Rae Murphy or Anita Gevinson’s self-published expose of rock stars she bedded (most prominently…Warren Zevon).

A great deal more could be written about the sociocultural pressures to take advantage of celebrity. After all, there are any number of so-called celebrities whose only real talent is their ability to celebritize (yeah, I made that word up), from Paris Hilton to the Kardashians to the reality TV personalities who will then reappear on Dancing with the Stars. Because celebrity is now so cheaply bought on cable and online, it had created the illusion that there is, in fact, an audience of readers who want to know about the people who knew famous people. And there might be: for free. But a paying audience?  That’s a different matter, and it’s where I, as a book editor, often draw the line.


By Christopher Hitchens (Twelve, 2010)

I just finished Christopher Hitchens’s magnificent new memoir, Hitch-22. I hated his last book, the one about God — or, as he would have it, god. Well, fair enough. I always thought the big-G god thing was an unfortunate bit of deck-stacking. But it was a truly ill-informed book, one written in bad faith (so to speak), one whose main use was to remind one of the utility of Cicero's dictum that we must state our opponent’s position in the strongest possible terms. When writing about religion, Hitchens never misses a chance to ridicule, or to understand. But this new book...

Well, it should have been obvious that the best book he could write about now would be a memoir. As he tacked from political left to right over the past ten years or so (although he makes a good argument in the book that the shift was much longer coming), his persona, and his writing, have increasingly been self-centered. Even when unintentionally so: whether or not he chose to foreground himself, we the readers certainly began to read him as much for the Him as for the ideas.

So it is a treat, now, to have a book that gives the whole Bildung. And it's just delectable, sassy fun to read about swinging London in the 1970s, when he was part of a set (he reluctantly uses the word) that included Martin Amis and James Fenton, and later Ian McEwan and many others. Their “Friday lunches” became the Algonquin on the Thames, full of wit and wordplay and political swordsmanship.

And those weren’t the only swords unsheathed. The man had sex with a lot of women — and, one is intrigued to learn, a lot of boys and men. Hitchens here makes a convincing and sympathetic case for the public-school incubation of the Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name as a rather beautiful thing, something one can develop a taste for. He is quite frank about his homosexual “relapses” that continued into his twenties, before he gynocentered himself for good.

My one complaint: that he never comes clean about his caddish end to his first marriage, and that he only briefly, economically confess what an absent father he has been, before moving on to more achievements and (wholly convincing) self-justifications about this, that, and the geopolitical other. He has suggested elsewhere that he doesn’t talk about his ugly disregard for his first wife and children because, well, it’s their story to tell, not his. I am not quite buying that. But one friend did make the very cogent case that his glaring omissions actually say something good about him: "Look,” she said to me, “he is open about sleeping with men, but obviously ashamed of the way he has treated those close to him. That actually shows he has a pretty good moral compass — he knows what is shameful and what isn’t.” That makes sense, I suppose. But I still wanted to watch him wear the hairshirt a bit more enthusiastically.

That said, this book is intelligent and humane, and it tells you more about Cypriot history than you thought you wanted to know. Hitch-22 reminded me why I love the author of The Missionary Position, his fervent slapping of Mother Teresa, and his book about the war crimes of Henry Kissinger. Hitchens takes no prisoners, not even himself.

Honor, thy father!

About a year ago, I wrote a review of , Honor Moore’s memoir of her father, the late Episcopal bishop of New York, Paul Moore. The review never ran, but the recent release of that book in paperback prompted me to return to the review, and I still think it contains some points worth making. So here it is; read on: In the strongest sense, literature has no ethnicity, of course. Beloved is not African American, even if its author is; Studs Lonergan is not Irish-American, even if its author is. Art, that’s what they are. But for the sake of shorthand, and to describe our acquired tastes, we do use ethnic language for literature (and so Portnoy’s Complaint is obviously Jewish, to take a familiar example). By those arbitrary standards, The Bishop’s Daughter, Honor Moore’s memoir of her father, the late Episcopal bishop Paul Moore, is a distinguished contribution to the very small genre we might call WASP confessional. Other writers have delivered the juicy, clam-baked goods, dishing on the sex and drugs and general dissolution hidden behind the brownstone walls, but the most notable of these works have usually been fictional, if just barely: from Edith Wharton to John Cheever, from to all can be told if no real names are used. In The Bishop’s Daughter, Moore quite plainly has decided that the old rules aren’t just old—they’re dead.

The book is thus instructive as an example of how meaningless ethnic literary categories are becoming, if they ever mattered all. Having decided there’s nothing to be said for her tribe’s traditional discretion, Moore can thus yank her bisexual father, who died in 2003, quite rudely from the posthumous closet and write of her mother’s descent into mental illness, of her own abortion, of lesbian affairs, and of straight affairs too numerous to keep straight. Much of the book’s compelling scent is the strong whiff of transgression. It’s the odor of dirty sex coming off those sheets of paper. Who writes like this about her dead father’s sodomite tendencies? Who besmirches the church this way? Certainly not a Radcliffe alumna descended of a founder of Bankers Trust! Thank God few of her father’s St. Paul’s classmates are alive to see this. Moores just don’t do this.

That was, in any case, one way to read the message of several anguished letters that Honor Moore’s siblings wrote to The New Yorker after the magazine published an excerpt from The Bishop’s Daughter in March 2008. But what they actually spoke of was common, not aristocratic, decency. “With moving elegiac sentiments, my sister Honor Moore has outed my recently deceased father, Bishop Paul Moore, against his clearly and often stated will,” Paul Moore III wrote. “Many of her siblings were astonished when she decided to do so. Our family resembles many others in that we presume a natural confidentiality as we share our struggles in life.” Osborn Elliott, the former editor of Newsweek and a neighbor of Paul Moore’s in Stonington, Conn., added his two, acerbic cents: “Writing about what she learned growing up as a daughter of Bishop Paul Moore, Jr.—and later about his secret life—Honor Moore seems to have forgotten the Fifth Commandment: Honor thy father and thy mother.”

I for the most part agree with Honor’s younger siblings and with Mr. Elliott: it’s a bad thing to write a book like this. Not because it libels the dead, who in this case is quite guilty and therefore not libeled in any case. And not because it violates class protocol. Rather, there has to be a very good reason to to go against the wishes of those friends and other family who would rather not see their beloved exhumed for the purpose of Amazon rankings. And Moore’s defense, straight from the canons of romanticism, does not cut it: “I came to understand that my own sexual development was inextricably tied up with my father’s complicated erotic life, and…I thought that story important for me to understand. [B]ecause I was a writer, understanding meant telling.” “So you have to write this for your integrity?” Moore is asked. “Yes,” Moore answers.

Nonsense, I answer. And I say that as a writer, one with the same good notices and poor sales as Honor Moore. Our integrity cannot require us to hang Daddy’s dirty laundry in public, nor to ignore the feelings of our siblings. (As another eldest sibling in a large family, I am particularly galled by Moore’s sororal irresponsibility.)

Meanwhile, however, the book is very good. The language is lovely, showing Bishop Moore vividly in all the stations of his cross: as the prep school boy slowly coming to Jesus, the worker priest serving the poor yet conflicted about his own family’s wealth (and about his lust for men), the sad, widowed father of nine children, the nationally famous left-wing bishop of New York City in the 1970s and ’80s, and the elder pastor, outed to his family and hoping for some portion of their compassion. And not only is the book beautifully written—a published poet, Moore will surely be remembered for this exercise in prose—and anthropologically interesting, taking us inside that world where possessions are rarely bought but always had, where every friend and lover has a summer home, and where practically the only Jew to be seen is “Arnold Weinstein,” a Portnoy-figure who honors the much younger Honor by making love on her “in daring, experimental ways.” The book is also theologically profound, making a powerful case that Paul Moore’s progressive episcopate depended on his homosexual urges. He was an enlightened clergyman because, not in spite of, what he believed was his sin-darkened heart.

In his daughter’s telling, Paul Moore appears to have been that rare creature, a genuine male bisexual. As a bachelor Paul Moore had courted more than one woman, and Honor, using her parents’ letters, reconstructs for us the winding road that led to Jenny McKean’s triumph over the competition. Then, beginning at least in seminary, already married, Paul Moore was having gay relationships. He continued having gay sex throughout his marriage. But when he and Jenny separated in 1970, probably because she knew about his affairs, they agreed to see other people…and soon, Honor later discovered, he was “dating no fewer than five women.” After Jenny’s death from cancer in 1973, a grieving Moore connected with at least one old female love but soon was re-married to a new love, Brenda Eagle. He seems truly, if inexplicably, besotted with his second wife, a falling-down drunk who wastes none of her small capacity for kindness on her stepchildren; but the marriage does not, at least, seem like a cynical arrangement meant to maintain a public persona. Meanwhile, Moore keeps his long-term male lover, abandons him when Brenda finds out, then goes back to him after Brenda’s death. He also goes back to women, taking at least one lover shortly before his death. (He told me about her when I him in 2002.) Long after he was out of the public eye, when he had no reputation to uphold, and when his children all knew about his gay past and present, he continued to love and make love to both men and women.

Honor Moore is very sensitive to the nuances of her father’s complicated sexuality, and she never tries to fix his erotic life to any theoretical matrix (his sexuality is never “on a continuum,” for example). She lets the facts speak for themselves, and saves her interpretation for the relationship between those sexual facts and his ministry. First, Honor notes, the overriding desire in Paul Moore’s life was not sexual but pastoral. He wanted to serve God in a very specific way: not as a theologian or church educator or deacon or choir director, but as an Episcopal priest of the traditional parish kind. That meant, in his estimation, having a wife, not just or even mainly for appearance’s sake, but rather because he would need a helpmeet in serving God. “Eventually,” Honor writes, “he found himself in love with my mother, his misgivings about her and his other desires subordinate to his quest for a partner in the life he was becoming more and more determined to pursue, a life in the church.” Attracted to both men and women, he chose to settle down with a woman, and as a young bride that woman helped him feed the poor and shelter the destitute in their parsonage in Jersey City; their joint ministry became a model in the church for engaged social action.

Honor seems to believe that the will does have some sway over the libido. Not only does her father choose women, but after a rocky time with men she loves only women for a long time, then returns to men. In this view, it is plausible that the bishop chose his double life in part because of the kinship it would give him with the suffering. Moore’s first great causes were justice for the Negro and for the poor man, and he was as far as can be from either. He did, however, have his own burden—homosexual love—and it’s one that gave him a sense of otherness, of what it was to be the Invisible Man.

“As my father lived his sexuality with men, it certainly was ‘something else,’” Honor writes, “something that moved beneath the surface of the life he lived with his wives, with his children, with parishioners and colleagues; something that moved between the interstices of language in the charged realm of desire, of imagination, of relationship with the unseen, informing his theology and compassion.” What’s more, if he “had disclosed that existence to his wives and children, he would have had to give up one life or the other….” This is not the time-worn drama of the tragic closet-case. Rather, Honor is arguing that her father’s refusal to choose between two worlds, even in old age, when gay rights were a fact of the world, and even at great cost to honest relations with his family, was the crucible in which his special Christian charity was forged.

That’s not to say that Paul always saw his bisexuality as a blessing. He was a man of his time, ashamed of his same-sex attraction, and he could be blunt about what he saw as a terrible failure. He did not valorize gay love as some sort of manly, Platonic ideal; to the contrary, he saw it as inferior to what a man shared with a woman. “It was an addiction,” he once told Honor. By contrast, “I loved your mother, and I love Brenda.” And at a time, the late 1960s, when other preachers, like the philandering , were preaching a “situation ethics” that might allow for extramarital sex, Moore was slow to give up the belief that “all sexual activity outside marriage was per se sinful,” as he wrote in

But of course that unflagging sense of rectitude contributed to Moore’s suffering, and therefore may have made him an even finer pastor. In 1969, , the first openly gay Unitarian minister, once compared the plight of homosexuals to the plight of blacks in America. “[T]here are many different groups of ‘Niggers’ in this country,” he wrote. “Mexican Americans, poor people, women, and yes, homosexuals.” Moore would never have preached in such off-color language, but he would have been in intuitive agreement with Stoll. “But what of the suffering?” Honor writes. “It was my father’s sacrifice and his gift. It was, as he had once told Andrew Verver”—his longtime lover—“what kept his ministry alive, what made his faith necessary.”

What made his faith necessary. The late twentieth century was not a good time for liberal religion, and certainly not for mainline Protestantism. The old establishment churches, the Congregationalists and the Episcopalians, hemorrhaged membership. People like Paul Moore were losing faith all around him; Honor is quite typical in having rejected the church of her patrician ancestors, the church of her dad. But Paul Moore remained a believer; his faith did not waver. Was it being bisexual that made his faith not only possible but necessary? Without it, would he have been just a rich old white man with a sentimental side and a soft sport for high-church ritual? Did the poor and benighted whom he served have his “addiction” to thank—for his willingness to lead them into the light, for his table where he fed them?

When Paul Moore told his eldest daughter, “It’s come out that I’ve had gay affairs,” he followed up quickly that “it is not public, and…you are NOT going to write a short story about it.” Honor was disoriented, and one of her first thoughts was, “Doesn’t he know I don’t write fiction?” She sure doesn’t. This is an exercise in confessional, the kind her father knew only in a liturgical context. We cannot know how her father would have felt about this fine exercise in non-fiction, and we can only wonder if her siblings will ever forgive her. But for those interested in what makes even some flawed men great, what makes them give their lives over to an ideal that leads them to serve others, this book offers a fresh, provocative answer.

The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life

By Floyd Skloot (University of Nebraska Press, 2008)

At the age of forty-one, was stuck with static dementia, a virally induced brain disease. Unable to write, struggling to grasp simple sentences, not capable of remembering new facts, fitfully recalling old ones, he was in “neurological tatters.” Yet in a blessed irony, loss of memory led to memoir. Skloot was already the author of half a dozen collections of poetry and three novels, but now the holes in his cerebral cortex led him to return to his past and, in this volume, his fourth memoir, he recounts the experiences and habits which have made him into “the sort of person who could only deal with what happened to him by writing about it.”

In , Skloot revisits his childhood, his father’s poultry market, his parents’ unhappy marriage, the family’s move from Brooklyn to Long Island, and their subsequent move to Queens after his father’s death. Traveling the world in search of a new beau, his mother would leave young Floyd, now fifteen, at home for months. Enrolled in a cooking class (taught by his football coach) sophomore year, the rapidly maturing Skloot learns, through experience and failure, not to do things like throw all the food in the pot at the same time, and, more important, how to take care of himself.

Even better than the tales is the pitch in which Skloot sings them. His sensibility is stoic and gentle. The style is clear, supple, expressive, and, one can't help but get the feeling, wise as well. Skloot’s work has been unjustly neglected for years; this volume yet again insists that a little more recognition come his way.

Shriek: An Afterword

By Jeff VanderMeer (Tor Books, 2006)

is a book of books. In its setting and some elements of its plot, it is a work of fantasy about a surreal city called Ambergris. It is also a personal drama, as its literary narrative style mixes — sometimes sentence for sentence — the conflicting voices of two talented and argumentative siblings, Janice and Duncan Shriek. But Shriek also blends two nonfiction genres that, to my knowledge, have never before met: tell-all memoir and environmental history. The latter, less familiar than the former, is the scholarly study of the environment as an instrument, object, and agent of historical change. Environmental history is my field of study, and has taken it to the level of the fantastic.

Duncan Shriek is a historian whose intrepidness and iconoclasm both inspire and lead to his downfall. In Ambergris, historians hold powerful sway in public culture and discourse, in part because interpretations of history hold vital implications for the present and future. Duncan’s first books whet the public’s appetite for local history. But then he breaks Ambergris’s greatest taboo by delving too deeply into a chapter of the city’s past long buried in denial. Centuries ago, the founders of Ambergris ousted the Gray Caps, its “original inhabitants,” and most scholars gloss the incident as, well, ancient history. However, by scouring old texts and the city’s secret underground, Duncan discovers that a Gray Cap resistance has long been building just out of sight. This disturbing theory is most unwelcome and — combined with an affair with a student — it destroys Duncan’s credibility at the very moment when Ambergris needs to hear his message.

Although Duncan is the historian, VanderMeer tells most of the story in the voice of Janice, sometime art promoter, war correspondent, and defender of her younger brother. Years later, after Duncan has disappeared in pursuit of the truth, she sits down at a typewriter in a shell-shocked tavern to set the record straight about the parallel falls of the Shrieks and their beloved city. Janice is a quintessential unreliable narrator: Jealous and bitter, she spews bile at Mary Sabon, Duncan’s former student and lover who rejected his theories to become Ambergris’s new favorite historian. But we trust her when she describes the damp night when Duncan stumbled through her door with tangible evidence of the Gray Caps’ plans: a multicolored fungus that, in the course of his research, had colonized his entire body.

VanderMeer populates Ambergris’s environment with characters I would love to investigate: the Gray Caps; bizarre mushrooms evolving in an underground lair; the Shrieks themselves, with their friends and enemies; and most of all, the city’s damp, foreboding, and spore-filled air. My colleagues and I write about everything from the construction of New Orleans in a mosquito-laden wetland to conflicts over wildlife between Euro- and Native Americans. But we rarely have the opportunity to weave family scandal and melodrama into our histories, and our archival work seldom reveals a new environmental agent that poses such a direct threat to an unsuspecting city.

I don’t only love this book because it glorifies my profession, however; it is also an exploration of the role of history in our lives and our world, and the ways that denial, both personal and collective, can color the way we look at the past. At the level of memoir, VanderMeer shows us a brother and sister struggling with the truth of their own personal histories. At the level of environmental history, we see a city denying its own past despite the living clues in the landscape. But in VanderMeer’s world, history is denied at great peril, as it really can get under the skin — sometimes literally.

Dawn Biehler teaches in the Department of Geography and Environmental Systems at the . She is working on an environmental history of urban pests.