Literary Sleaze (Part 1 of 3)

Schnakenberg, Robert. Secret Lives of Great Authors: What Your Teachers Never Told You About Famous Novelists, Poets, and Playwrights. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2008.

Alright—admit it. You’ve completed an English degree or two, you’ve read at least one James Joyce book from cover to cover, and you’ve never so much as scanned the jacket of a Dan Brown novel. You pride yourself on your refined literary tastes and yet… as you stand in line at the supermarket, half listening to the customer two places ahead of you argue with the clerk about the misleading margarine labeling, your eye inevitably drifts to… the tabloid rack. Could it be true? Is she really going to rehab again? Could they really be breaking up? Is that really what she wore to that awards ceremony?

But sadly, a few minutes of reading a tabloid leaves you feeling dissatisfied, and vaguely dirty. The articles are trite, predictable, poorly written, and so deeply devoid of content that you begin to lose faith in humanity. While many of us crave a little voyeuristic sleaze now and then, there’s no need to descend into the basement of the written word to satisfy this craving. In fact, you can stay well within the borders of the literary world and still get your gossip fix. So, if you’re craving some fluff with a little substance, I’ve got three books for you: Secret Lives of Great Authors by Robert Schnakenberg, Alcohol and the Writer by Donald W. Goodwin, M.D., and Literary Feuds by Anthony Arthur. This week; Schnakenberg.

Secret Lives of Great Authors: What Your Teachers Never Told You About Famous Novelists, Poets, and Playwrights offers a short, sharp, snappy look at forty-one of the most famous writers from William Shakespeare to Thomas Pynchon. The book focuses on the more juicy details of each writer’s life and work, such as allusions to masturbation in Walt Whitman’s poetry, James Joyce’s kinky letters to Nora Barnacle, and the grim snack Sylvia Plath left for her children before sealing herself into her kitchen. The book also covers a variety of authors not popularly known for the sordid details of their lives, revealing quirks you never suspected the likes of Louisa May Alcott of having. Secret Lives of Great Authors should hold a few surprises about each writer it discusses, even those writers you thought you knew well.

Secret Lives of Great Authors is pleasing not only for its chunky, comic book illustrations of everyone from Virginia Woolf to J.D. Salinger, and not only because each entry is just long enough to kill off a bout of mid-afternoon boredom, but also because the book is well written. The text is unapologetically voyeuristic, but the logic and research behind the book are sound. It is this soundness that allows the reader to forego the normal tabloid cringing, and sink into the delicious sleaze of the book.

Helen Hajnoczky recently completed her BA Honours in English and creative writing from the University of Calgary, where her research focused on feminist avant-garde poetics. Her work has appeared in Nod, fillingStation, Rampike, and Matrix magazines, as well as in a variety of chapbooks. She is the current poetry editor of fillingStation magazine. Her first book of poetry, Poets and Killers, is forthcoming from Snare Books.

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