My Thoughts on Bios
Do you hate bios as much as I? Upgrading my own bio always reminds me of the ethical crisis kids face nowadays when they apply for college. Isn’t it both morally and artistically reprehensible to turn a childhood into a resume? Is it really a peck-or-be-pecked world out there?
I like to think of writing as one of those endeavors in which hierarchy has a work-around. A master-of-the universe can confide to an out-of-work electrician, or have it go the other way. While well advised not to lie down with one another there’s nothing to keep a lion from reading a lamb’s memoir.
The author bio has become an advertisement, but isn’t that insane? Outside of the picture (often dated or doctored), the author bio is composed of words. So’s a book. So why not just crack the book and read the first page? We agree not to judge a book by its cover, but think it appropriate to judge one by its author.
“The text seemed dreary,” people tell one another, “but this woman’s last novel was a huge best seller in Dubai.” Or: “The prose worked like Ambien on me, but the guy is 107 years old and wrote the whole thing with a flesh-colored Crayola, which he held between his teeth.”
Some writers have overcome unspeakable obstacles, about which they speak at length. Others have ruined their own lives with drugs, alcohol and the sedulous violation of all 12 of the Ten Commandments. Did these people sinned for the sin of it, or only because they thought it would make for a captivating author bio?
“Half the object is gained when the audience is assembled,” wrote P.T. Barnum, but Barnum was not primarily a writer. He was a showman, an impresario. Barnum did not say, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” That was Mencken, but I don’t think H.L. meant it as advice.
I here state that Benjamin H. Cheever has published four novels (The Plagiarist, The Partisan, Famous After Death, The Good Nanny). He’s also responsible for two works of nonfiction (Selling Ben Cheever and Strides). He edited The Letters of John Cheever. He’s taught at The New School for Social Research, and the Bennington M.F.A. program.
He’s been freelancing for so long as to be turned down repeatedly, a process that continues to this day. Bestseller David Baldacci says that a rejection slip is a medal. Some of those medals are purple hearts. You can lose an arm, or an eye. Ben’s children’s book, The First Dog, was rejected by several publishers before he and illustrator Tim Grajeck decided to bring it out themselves. His freelance writing career has also had its high points—The New York Times, The New Yorker, Town and Country, Gourmet, Runner’s World.
Despite all this prating about ethics, Ben’s enough of a chameleon to have written for The Reader’s Digest and The Nation, although the latter publication gave almost as much space to an attack on the essay they published as on the essay itself. He’s contributed frequently to Audiofile, the magazine for people who love audio books, and yes, he is an enthusiastic consumer of audiobooks.
Cheever hosts a TV show called “About Writing,” of which the 50+ episodes can be seen at PCTV76.org. He lives in Pleasantville, New York, with his wife, Janet Maslin, now book critic for The New York Times. Together they have produced two sons whom he adores, and obtained two dogs who adore him.
(I wonder, is that safe to say? If I grew famous enough, would the Schnoodle go behind my back, sell her story to The National Enquirer? Imagine the headlines: “Celebrity author enjoys luxe dinner, while, after eating deer shit, his dog is locked in crate.” “Author jets to tropics, sends ‘beloved’ pets to prison.” Possible book titles: Howls!! Or Reflections on Drinking From the Toilet.)
Do my accomplishments matter? Long a staple of literary study, James Boswell caught venereal disease 17 times. How much then can character matter? Do I matter at all?
“The writer’s material is essential,” according to the poet, Michael Ryan, “but what really matters to me is what he or she makes of it. The writing I love most is finally about the reader, not the writer.”