Quoting Diane Middlebrook

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Quotable (Photo: Amanda Lane)

Brendan Boyle has written a review of Diane Middlebrook’s posthumous Young Ovid for the Wall Street Journal here, in a piece titled “Love and Other Crimes.” (And I’ve written about the book here and here.) My attention was immediately drawn to it because it leads with a line from my obituary for the celebrated biographer – here. The quote was taken from the unpublished bits of an interview I did with her in 2003, for my Stanford Magazine interview here.  Since obituaries typically aren’t chatty and first person-y, I didn’t mention my 2003 interview, and simply quoted her.

Here is the whole passage:

When asked several years ago why she picked Ovid as her subject, she responded with characteristic breeziness, “No estates, no psychotherapy, no interviews, no history—I just make it up.” She frequently pointed out that there is no historical record of Ovid’s life; all we know is in his poetry. In other words, the biographer is forced to rely on the text itself. Can literature be primary source? Her answer was always a resounding yes—especially evident in her biography of Hughes and Plath, a book that was called the “gold standard” on a contentious theme.

But later, Middlebrook would add that she was also attracted to “the remarkable confidence that Ovid had in his own survival.” At a Stanford address last January, Middlebrook noted, “The evidence inside his poetry is the key to this longevity. His voice comes to us like a plucked string, immediate and recognizable across two millennia…”

Why is there no attribution? Presumably Boyle picked it up from Wikipedia, which didn’t attribute the source, either. Nor did it credit me with this quotation from her obituary: “One of the reasons I like working on biographies is that it takes a long time,” she said. “You don’t have to work quickly. People are going to stay dead.”

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Redundant?

In my ham-fisted way, I’ve corrected the Wikipedia listings. Honestly, what is the point of doing interviews, trying hard to make the quotations accurate, transcribing recordings, which takes hours and hours … if people are going to treat what you’ve written as if it popped out of thin air? Boyle writes, “It’s the second half of the response that’s worrisome and surely can’t have been meant in earnest.” Well, of course it wasn’t. If he had gone to the article that included it, he would have seen that it was said with “characteristic breeziness.” She was being flippant. But he couldn’t. Because he was using Wikipedia, which didn’t list a source.

In any case, Boyle didn’t think much of the book, apparently, and what she said to me about “making it up” sealed her doom in his eyes, since he refers to that remark a lot. “The fictionalized interludes that Middlebrook herself writes do not add much and often have that florid, overripe air that descends upon so much writing about the ancient world.” He repeatedly makes it clear that “there is already a very fine account of Ovid’s life in Peter Green’s 1982 introduction to the Penguin edition of Ovid’s erotic poems.”  After recounting its virtues, he concludes, “All of this, and far more, is available in Mr. Green’s introduction, and no one looking for a sophisticated, compendious account of the poet’s life should search elsewhere.” Then why review this book at all?


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