Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring made the cover of the New York Times Book Review last week. It was a well-deserved honor for a fascinating exploration of the way drink inflects the work of a number of male writers. But it is difficult to classify, generically. It’s not quite a biography, and not quite literary criticism, and not quite memoir either. This is one of my favorite kinds of books, I should say, the kind that give you the lives of other writers embedded in a strong point of view from the writer herself, and do something more than your garden-variety kitchen-sink biography manages to achieve. Here are some books you could buy, along with Laing’s, if that formula sounds up your alley.
When Milford published Zelda, in 1970, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife was still largely known as a crazy woman who dragged a great man down. Her book, though it may look like every plodding, slow biography you once paged through in college to find a letter quote for the paper, changed the view of Zelda entirely. Even Elizabeth Hardwick had to remark that the book, “by concentration upon her subject, and even perhaps by inadvertence, brought troubling thoughts to our minds, shifted the balance of things, and made it possible for the reader to see in this unhappy woman—a fleeting paragon of the 1920s—an instance of unexpected moral complexity, an example of peculiar failure and the object of a kind of unnamable injustice—domestic, social, cultural?—and the victim of many miseries that were not always unavoidable.” It’s the nature of Milford’s own obsession with her subject that makes this a page turner.