A journalist or historian needs something to write about — a subject worthy of the time and effort it takes to gather the information and put it into a suitable form.
Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?
Sometimes, of course, stories just don’t pan out. If you’re working in daily journalism, a story like that is no big deal. It might mean a few hours lost and a few phone calls that go nowhere.
But, what if you’ve committed several months of your life and your big-time book publisher has advanced major bucks for your manuscript?
Historian Edmund Morris encountered that problem when he signed on to write the authorized biography of Ronald Reagan in 1985. At that time Morris had gained a good reputation as a biographer with his work on Theodore Roosevelt, and he had been counted by the Reaganites for some time. He was given special access to the White House and Reagan and his family. All were fully cooperative.
Reagan left office in 1989 and went into retirement. Morris continued to work with almost unlimited access to files in the Reagan Library.
The result of his efforts, after more than a decade of work, was Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan.
Morris included all the standard biographical material, but he also created a fictional version of himself and placed it in the book. He resorted to this “literary device” because no one, including Reagan himself, understood the man. He had no close friends. He was not in the least curious about himself. And no one that he talked to “could ever figure him out.” That would include Morris.
In reviewing the book, the New York Times referred to Reagan as “the hollow man.”
Morris resorted to fiction to try to explain a subject he couldn’t locate. Here’s what the Times review said:
Most journalists, historians and nonfiction writers will find this unacceptable. The fictional characters are not clearly identified as such; often they are unnecessary and distracting, particularly an obnoxious made-up son of the author who becomes a radical in the 1960’s. Yet a reader who surrenders to Morris’s self-indulgent blend of scholarship and imagination will be led through a riveting story to a transcendent conclusion with a surprise twist. If there is a ”higher truth” justifying the book’s technique, it is that Ronald Reagan lived in a world of his own fictions, far more extensive than the fictions of Edmund Morris. Who better suited to plumb a phantom subject than a phantom narrator? (quoted material from the New York Times review)
Morris died in May 2019. (This is his New York Times obituary.) He had completed a biography of Thomas Edison that has recently been published and has received good reviews, just as this one from the New York Times.
Morris’s story is not unique.
Author Richard Ben Cramer encountered the same problem. His story is told in an excellent article in a 2014 Sports Illustrated, The Puzzle That Couldn’t Be Solved by S.L. Price. Cramer, a journalist of distinctive style and stunning success (What It Takes: The Way to the White House; Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life; What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now: A Remembrance; Being Poppy: A Portrait of George Herbert Walker Bush, among others).
Cramer died in 2013 of complications from lung cancer. He was 62 years old.
In 2006 Cramer sold both his publisher and his subject on a book about Alex Rodriguez, the star of the New York Yankees who was recently banned for a year by Major League Baseball for taking banned substances. The book had the title, The Importance of Being Alex: A Life with the Yankees. He had a $550,000 advance from the Hachette Book Group. Rodriguez had agreed to cooperate fully. In fact, he welcomed Cramer into his entourage.
During the next year and a half, Cramer was all in with A-Rod and his crowd, spending hours and days traveling with him, talking with him, figuring out the relationships he had. It was a time when A-Rod was fulfilling most of the expectations that baseball fans had for him — the expectation, in particular, of being one of the greatest baseball players ever.
But at some point, in Cramer’s head, A-Rod began to evaporate.
He had hoped to give A-Rod “his size” as the apotheosis of postmodern stardom, but the deeper he dug the more he found, says one close friend, “nothing there. A completely vacuous person and a completely vacuous life.” (quoted material from the Sports Illustrated article)
By 2010, after A-Rod admitted using performance-enhancing drugs, not only was Cramer unable to find his larger-than-life story, but his subject had become loathsome.
It’s a sad tale for all concerned. (This summary doesn’t do the article justice; you should find it and read it.)
So, the lesson for journalists here is a cautionary one. Despite receiving the accolades of the world (in these instances baseball and politics), a subject may not be worth your time and talent.
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