Biography and ventriloquism
It is not normally my practice to reply to reviews or reviewers: authors have their say in books, then reviewers have theirs in reviews. The danger in not replying to wrong-headed comments, however, is that readers imagine one is conceding the point.
Mark Amery, in the course of reviewing Roger Horrocks’ Len Lye biography (October 2001), makes an inaccurate and silly comment about my biography of Janet Frame when he describes it as being written “largely at the beck and call of [the] subject.” Patrick Evans made a similar comment elsewhere when he likened my role to that of a ventriloquist’s dummy sitting on Janet Frame’s authorial knee.
While such comments provided Janet Frame and me with causes for hilarity, they are nonsense. As eventual release of papers relating to the biography will show, Frame and I frequently disagreed about which events and accounts of events should appear in the book. When discussion and correspondence failed to resolve such disagreement, Frame left final decisions about content to me, as author.
As to Amery’s repetition of Damien Wilkins’ point that Frame writes better than I do – well, of course she does. That’s why I wrote her biography. That’s why she is a world-famous author and I a mere New Zealand historian. Had it been otherwise, our roles might have been reversed.
My task, however, was not to compete with Frame on aesthetic grounds. It was to measure her autobiographies against historical evidence. While such a process may indeed be “workmanlike”, as Amery says (I regard that as a compliment), it was certainly not non-critical, as a close reading of the biography would have shown him.