The Last Word

By Hanif Kureishi

There is no more ignoble task than writing the biography of a celebrity.

In all but the most exceptional cases you’ll first need to get access – but access always comes at a price. Biographers have a special relationship with their subjects, one that inevitably leads to compromise.

This was dramatically brought to public attention earlier this year when there was a fuss over Mark Whitaker’s “definitive” biography of Bill Cosby (Cosby: His Life and Times), a book that somehow managed to avoid any mention of the allegations of sexual abuse and rape that had been made against Cosby, or a civil suit against him that was settled out of court.

As more, and still more, women came forward accusing Cosby of being a serial sexual predator, Whitaker had to admit that he probably should have pursued the initial allegations more aggressively.

Still, it’s hard to blame him. This is how celebrities lead the media dance. Access is a commodity to be traded in. Cosby had previously made a deal with the National Enquirer, giving them an exclusive interview in exchange for spiking a story involving allegations of sexual assault. Closer to home, during the early days of Jian Ghomeshi’s fall from grace we learned of how his publicist sought to kill a Toronto Life story on the radio host’s sex life in exchange for giving the magazine access to the CBC host for a profile piece.

As pointed out by Mary Elizabeth Williams, writing in Salon, there is nothing strange about this kind of behaviour. “You want access? In return, you have to play by the subject’s rules.” Wary biographers need to

take a look at what their subjects, when feeling cornered and confronted with questions and criticism, are capable of. It can involve threats and intimidation and flat out playing dirty, on the part of very powerful people. This is the sausage-making process in action, folks. It’s not pretty, is it?

No, it isn’t. It is, however, rich material for satire, which is where Hanif Kureishi takes it in The Last Word.

Our hero, Harry, is a young freelance writer with a pregnant, shopaholic girlfriend. In other words, he’s looking for a score. So his rakish publisher, Roger, sends him off to write a biography of the aging literary lion Mamoon Azam, who is living the life of a squire on his country estate while generally pretending to still be a writer.

Everyone has an agenda when it comes to telling the story of Azam’s life. Roger wants something sensational and sexy. He wants a big-time takedown, because that’s “where the public like their artists – exposed, trousers down, arse up, doing a long stretch among serial killers . . . That’ll teach’em to think their talent makes them better than mediocre no-brain tax-paying wage slaves like us.”

Meanwhile, Harry’s family see him as victim of a “manic egotist” who only wants “a flattering portrait of his big head.” To that end, Azam’s wife has carefully vetted candidates to come up with someone she feels can be intimidated and seduced into writing pure hagiography: a bio that will revive Azam’s reputation by making him out to be “the last of the postwar literary geniuses, there being only blogs, trolls, and amateurs from now on.”

With those being the battle lines, and any notion of the truth tossed to the breeze, the dirty dance begins. Harry is directed to some sources, but forbidden others. Azam will only answer the questions he wants to answer, becoming insulting and defensive at those he dislikes. He knows that his legacy is what’s at stake, and that this is all he has left given his recognition of the fact that few older artists produce significant work.

We like to think of authors as being slightly above the common run of celebrity: more sensitive, intellectual, and morally advanced. They aren’t, and to be honest they don’t make very interesting biographical subjects either. After all, what do they do but spend most of their day sitting at a desk?

Kureishi’s satire of the sausage-making biography business underscores all this. It’s a dark literary comedy full of petty and selfish people on the make, using one another, and generally making fools of themselves. As Harry ruefully concludes, “biography is a process of disillusionment.”

It’s not pretty, but it’s funny because it’s true.

Review first published in the Toronto Star June 13, 2015.

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