by Kathryn Nuernberger
Featured Art: Study of Arms for “The Cadence of Autumn” by Evelyn De Morgan
When I walked out on A Quiet Passion, the 2016 Emily Dickinson biopic, I decided I was walking out on all biopics about writers forever. 1 The genre has built-in structural problems that seem almost insurmountable. For one thing, a writer’s work is neither their life nor their personality. For another, staring out a window or at a blank page cannot be sustained on screen for longer than a single montage. Moreover, a life well-lived2 seldom has a coherent narrative arc.
Every good writer knows a story needs character-based conflict and tension. Ideally you will have at least two formidable characters who can confront and challenge each other. Biopics, obsessed as they tend to be with great men3 and the source of their genius, grow tedious. The person v. self conflict is rarely successful in a visual medium that lacks the page’s possibilities for documenting interiority. Nevertheless, filmmakers keep making biopics of influential writers, organizing their love affairs and nervous breakdowns into rising action, climactic epiphanies, and allegedly satisfying conclusions, usually with the lines from the author’s work taken out of context and repurposed as punchlines.
Readers in the audience of such films tend to know and care too much about the mess of notebooks, not to mention the constant intellectual-emotional-spiritual backtrackings and obsessions of their favorite poets, to imagine there can be any meaning made of a writer’s life that is more satisfying than what they themselves created out of the material. The rare exception to this steady stream of blunders4, I’m sorry to say, is the 2015 David Foster Wallace biopic The End of the Tour.5 The reasons, I’m sorry to say, I will enumerate at length, but first I want to acknowledge the truly ingenious way screenwriter Donald Margulies managed to surmount the aforementioned pitfalls of the biopic genre. In this film the character who arcs is not the famous writer—true to life, the David Wallace of this film never arcs, only spirals. Rather, journalist and emerging novelist David Lipsky matures into a serious writer by overcoming insecurity, jealousy, and simpering hero worship. This character development is explored through the narrative construct of the road trip—the two men travel from Wallace’s home to Minneapolis and back again as part of the last leg of the book tour for Infinite Jest.
The buddy road trip structure is a welcome innovation for the biopic that makes it possible for the filmmakers (including director James Ponsoldt) to consider the works and ideas of a writer without reducing literary output to a simplistic life story. In one of the final lines of the movie, Lipsky says of his journey with Wallace, “It was the best conversation I ever had.” This too is a refreshingly insightful understanding of the life and work of a writer, which is always an extended conversation with other writers, thinkers, and readers. And I hate to say The End of the Tour is “insightful,” and I hate to say it’s the “exception,” and I hate to imply it’s “great” or even “good,” because I strongly recommend that you never devote a dollar from your pocket or a minute from your life to seeing this film.
I will begin my complaints with a confession of jealousy: I am jealous of how men get to go to the cinema and see other men go on road trips to discover their innate artistic genius, while women watch Thelma and Louise, survivors of assaults and bringers of righteous vengeance, drive their car off a cliff at the end of the road. Men get to gaze at men talking about the works and ideas of other men—The End of the Tour has a slew of references to men, including Cheever, Hemingway, Pynchon, and Boswell. The only woman writer referenced is Eudora Welty, who is described merely as having once given Wallace an award. Women get to watch women6follow these men around laughing7 at their objectifying jokes, falling for their advances, or giving matronly scolding looks at their antics.8
That these innovations should salvage the biopic form in service of a man’s reputation is particularly irritating9 because the framework for understanding Lipsky’s development into a fully-formed writer via a process of collaboration and exchange is rooted in the theoretical work of feminist and womanist scholars. They did not invent friendship, but they were forerunners in articulating its role in the creation of art. Consider Adrienne Rich’s remarks in “On Lies, Secrets, and Silence” that “Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience.” Consider her argument that “Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.” Or consider Sara Ahmed’s acknowledgment of how queer and intersectional feminist theories and scholarship emerged in spaces rooted in friendship. In an interview with Guernica she explains: “Much of the time we create our own spaces and shelters even if that is at each other’s houses or on each other’s Facebook walls. The kitchen table can become a publishing house.” Critical appreciations of the role of friendship in artistic and scholarly production have been powerful currents in the cultural shoals where scholarly monographs by women philosophers are published; that the principles should spill over into the mainstream and promptly be put to use to celebrate the artistic production of a man with a history of abuse—David Foster Wallace—is so entirely predictable it’s almost unbearable.
The story of friends on the road that we see in The End of the Tour, though, is a particularly perfect framework for exploring a writer’s life. Many writers find their years shaped by book tours, residencies, and constant moves in pursuit of MFAs, Ph.Ds, and various tenuous academic appointments. Perhaps I was simultaneously so moved and so pissed off by The End of the Tour because of how it reminded me of the times such road trips with fellow writers10 have radically changed, even saved my life, or the life of the writer-friend in the passenger seat. Women and non-binary writers have a rich literary tradition of championing each other—they share burdens of motherhood so each has time to write, offer support to friends escaping abusive relationships, create pathways for publication by lowering the ladder instead of pulling it up after signing the contract, in contrast to the habits of ruthless boys’ clubs. And a fair bit of this support happens in the course of driving each other down the highway into new lives or out of old ones. Though such friendship is certainly available to men, even to11 men who are known abusers, this film owes a debt to feminist, intersectional feminist, and queer theories that it does not pay.
If you are in a position to make a literary biopic go ahead and see this film so you can borrow its clever approach to plot structure, as well as the way its attention to friendship and mentorship, both of which are excellent avenues for channeling the writer’s literary voice into cinematic dialogue. But please, consider pitching one of these literary friendships:
• Zora Neale Hurston took a legendary drive around Florida collecting the folk tales that would become Of Mules and Men. Always committed to getting the story, there is a hell of a scene from the night when she followed her friend12 into a knife fight at a lumber camp.
• Forget Ted Hughes. Let’s see the season Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton spent in a workshop led by Robert Lowell. Be sure to include the conversation at the bar where they compared scars from their respective suicide attempts while their classmates recoiled from the macabre sensibilities of these two friends.
• What brilliant conversations must unfold any time the Erdrich sisters, Louise the renowned novelist and Heid E. the acclaimed poet, drive across their tribe’s unceded Dakota lands? Imagine the film of that great conversation.
• I would also like to see the film where the brilliant Mary Karr spends the early years of her career changing phone numbers and taking steps to secure herself and her child from the increasingly frightening advances of an ex, the writer David Foster Wallace, whose obsessive letters, and the way he kicked her, climbed her house, and tailed her son on the way home from kindergarten, meet legal definitions for stalking. This information was readily available to the director and screenwriter of The End of the Tour, but it is not given so much as a footnote in the film. Perhaps someone could make the movie where we see Karr deep in a great conversation with her friend and advocate Lena Dunham about how art gets made under such debilitating psychological pressures.13 It seems the audience for such a film is sure to be sizeable given that one in four women have been stalked in a fashion similar to what Karr endured.14
If you are not a filmmaker, simply a person who appreciates writers and their good writing, I recommend skipping the literary biopic until such time as Tuca and Birdie, the best on-screen depiction of friendship or road trips yet, doesn’t get cancelled by Netflix after one season, but instead is signed for six seasons and a movie. In the meanwhile, Captain Marvel is pretty great if you imagine how the poet HD and her partner, the novelist Bryher, helped Jewish refugees escape Nazi internment and fight the Kree. Mad Max: Fury Road remains my favorite cinematic account of the adventurous life shared by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Ghostbusters: Answer the Call15 is the finest depiction you’ll see in a theater about journalist friends and anti-lynching activists Ida B. Wells and Victoria Earle Matthews16 swinging on their proton packs.
Or you could read their own writings, which circumvent altogether questions about whether or not the men who finance, direct, screenwrite, or might buy tickets to biopics will see worthy genius in lives that are entirely entwined in the work, joy, and love of others, whose names you may or may not have heard before.
(1) I have simmered down on this prohibition a bit, though I did miss the chance to see Wild Nights with Emily (2019) in theaters because I’m still smarting from hearing some of the finest poems in English reduced to so-called witty garden-party repartee in AQP.
(2) Or even poorly.
(3) And women too, but let’s be honest, usually men and nearly always white.i
i. And anyway “genius” is a concept inextricably wound up in patriarchal and white supremacist notions of who is valued and for what. So even when films focus on women writers, they are interpreted through the oppressor’s lens.i
a. Cue the 2003 Sylvia Plath biopic Sylvia starring Gwyneth Paltrow.
(4) Wouldn’t it be great if the other essays in this feature convinced me I have just been watching all the wrong films or overlooking all the best parts?ii
ii. Better still, what if the limitations of a mortal being’s time and attention allowed for a full and complete survey of this extensive genre, sparing one the agony of drawing conclusions based on an incomplete data set?
(5) I long counted David Foster Wallace an important influence, given that his essays in Consider the Lobster helped me appreciate the footnote as a place for deep, imaginative contextualization and complication. I thought he invented this form that inspired me towards deep and obsessive research.iii
iii. More recently, in the course of a great conversation with Alexis Pauline Gumbs, a writer whose poems are born of even deeper conversations with African American women scholars, I learned that Sylvia Wynter predates David Foster Wallace as a great innovator of the footnote. Wynter’s litanies of annotations and citations are epic in scope, answering such questions as what made the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade a think able proposition. This conversation took place while Gumbs was spending a year of her life on the road.
(7) More or less
(8) All in five lines of dialogue or less
(9) Did I remember to say “not all men”? Not all men don’t have friends. Not all men don’t or do value the people in their lives.iv Not all men have never thought about who gives them that hour or moment of peace by taking the children out to the park or putting the food on the table.v
iv. Not all men have been culturally conditioned to feel they must say they are sorry when they take help or apologize before they ask for it. Not all men feel compelled to bookend every conversation with pointless apologies. Not all men have never asked for help out of fear of what kind of not-all-man they might become if they did.
v. Not all men have never picked or not picked a fight with someone for fear that they are or are not creating a more just future for the children of the future who will have some sort of gender and some sort of role based on every action taken or not taken.
(10) Though I have enjoyed road trips with cis-hetero men, always the transformative experiences are with women or non-binary people, never the cis-hetero menvi.
vi. It is very hard to shake the distracting worry about whether this time, which has been fine so far,b will remain fine.
b. Because not every time has been fine and likely not every time in the future will be.
(11) Perhaps especially to
(12) And very good storyteller
(13) Such a film could also reckon with these writers’ failures to incorporate intersectional feminism into their work, even when given many encouragements to do so.vii
vii. As The End of the Tour might have reckoned honestly with the fullness of Wallaces’s fallibilities, but decided not to.
(14) A fact I learned in the pamphlet a police officer gave me in lieu of the meaningful help our criminal justice systemviii is unable and unwilling to provide.
viii. Like academia, the publishing business, and the film industry
(15) And we all know why this reboot with its women ghostbusters in lead roles was not called Ghostbusters 3, right?
(16) I learned of this legendary friendship from my own friend, Kim Todd, whose forthcoming nonfiction book on female stunt reporters is full of great conversations between writer-friends traveling wild and dangerous roads, finding themselves and their genius along the way.
Kathryn Nuernberger’s third poetry collection, Rue, is forthcoming in Spring 2020 (BOA). The End of Pink (BOA, 2016), won the 2015 James Laughlin prize from the Academy of American Poets, and Rag & Bone (Elixir, 2011) won the 2010 Antivenom Prize. A collection of lyric essays, Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (Ohio State University Press, 2017), won the Non/Fiction Prize from The Journal. She teaches in the MFA Program at University of Minnesota and has received grants from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, and the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life.