Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Anti Blurb wars part three

Leonard Cohen; Hallelujah-A new Biography

The blurb claims this is “Authoritative but often wryly amusing…” but more importantly: “featuring numerous new and exclusive interviews with some of Cohen’s key Associates and including brand new research which reveals previously unreported details Leonard Cohen; Hallelujah-A new Biography will remain the standard work on the man for years to come.”

So let’s see: “Authoritative” could mean any number of things.
the author does have a tendency to lay down the law about what is and isn't good about the songs or individual records. But unless you're the kind of person who wants to be told what to like, it's a bit tedious.
There’s already a very good biography of Cohen, by Ira Nadel called Various Positions. It’s more a literary biography than a piece of glib rock journalism but the list of people Nadel interviewed and consulted is a long one. The only real criticism you can level against it is that it’s almost hagiographical.

So wouldn’t you expect a book which is claiming to be “the standard work on the man” to be driven by its own agenda which would necessitate the writer moving away from what is readily available? Wouldn’t you expect it to include some interviews with the man himself, conducted by the writer? How do you write an authoritative biography of a living subject if you don’t ask him or her the questions that are driving your biography.

"So Wordsworth, what does it feel like to have been instrumental in killing off one of the greatest talents in English poetry?"
"Harold, what the hell were you thinking?"

If you simply cobble together your work from the answers to other people’s questions aren’t you just retracing the well known tracks? Wouldn’t you think that maybe interviewing the ex wife, or some of the women who figure so prominently in the songs might be a good idea? (it would be the one way to improve on Nadal’s biography). Footman did neither.
So the blurb says:
“numerous new and exclusive interviews with some of Cohen’s key Associates”
There are 200 endnotes to the biography section of the biography. Of these 5 are credited as “interview with the author[Footman]”. Is five numerous? It’s easily outnumbered by references or quotes taken from either Nadal’s Biography or Harry Rasky’s book.
"Exclusive" perhaps but “Some of Cohen’s key associates”…so if you know Cohen’s story think of “key associates“ ..Sharon Robertson, Jennifer Warnes, Rosco Beck.. or Marianne, the ex wife, the “real Suzanne”, Anjani Thomas, Dominique Isserman…? People he knew on Hydra/Nashville/Montreal?
As far as I can make out the “original interviews’ were carried out in May or June 2009 and the book was published in November 2009. Which suggests a lot. The subjects of the "numerous and exclusive" interviews were John Simon John Lissauer, and Stephen Scobie. (Scobie’s work on Cohen has been a long term academic project which actually treats the man’s work with the attention it deserves but nothing he’s quoted as saying here is of that standard.)
I’m not sure what the “previously unreported details” can be since most of the information in this book is taken from previously published and often readily available material.

I think there's a point where blurbs move from being overblown and funny towards being dishonest.


DrHGuy said...

Serendipitously, I posted on this same biography yesterday at Exclusive Q&A With Tim Footman, Author Of New Leonard Cohen Biography. One of the issues raised was the blurb, which, in addition to content mentioned already, also implies the book contains inside information about a forthcoming Leonard Cohen album (it doesn't). Tim Footman responded that the blurb was a press release which “was written well before I delivered the copy, and was nowt to do with me. He’s [Cohen has] written some songs. He’s done some recordings. That’s all I know… .” The demands of publication schedules notwithstanding, it seems counterproductive to the publisher's and author's reputations in the long run, as well as patently ludicrous, to write an ostensible description of an as yet unwritten book.

Liam Guilar said...

Thanks for the link.
Nice site.
His glib answers match the tone of the book. To end a biography with a chapter called In conclusion, which raises the question "How great is leonard Cohen?" seems dodgy but it's sad because he obviously hasn't got the tools to answer his own question. A rag bag of commonplace, second hard opinion and one liners doesn't do justice to the subject and the glibness just gets in the way.
Coleridge said good criticism tells the readers what they couldn't work out for themselves. This gets nowhere near that.
Interesting to compare with Harper's "Dazzling Stranger" which probably has a much smaller potential audience, (hands up everyone who's heard of Bert Jansch), but is a fine biography.