Many of the issues Shapland touches on in this book are important, not least the existence of a long history of women’s relationships not being spoken about, or not being named as lesbianism, or disguised by other names. But most topics are left undigested: gender identity as performance is central, whilst current gender theory debates – which are more than touched on in one of the episodes – are left dangling. However, this book isn’t about providing answers or, even, intellectual engagement: “Through her relationships with other women, I can trace the evidence of Carson’s becoming, as a woman, as a lesbian, and as a writer.” Perhaps Shapland did trace “evidence”, we just never get to see any of it.
Still, I’m glad to have read My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. Its mere existence stands as a warning of the cul-de-sac into which publishing has lately wandered (I mean, run, blindfolded, at full tilt). It could not be more modish, from the floating paragraphs of its fractured narrative to its breathless quoting of Maggie Nelson (of whom, incidentally, I’m a fan). In the US, it was a National Book award finalist; Carmen Maria Machado calls it – preposterously, given the single note it sounds – “symphonic”. Why the dazzlement? Why won’t anyone take this book on? Because I’m here to tell you that it often makes no sense.
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is beautifully and sparsely written, and short-listed for several prestigious US awards, including the National Book award. It taught me that my gaydar is rubbish: I never sensed from her novels that McCullers was gay; I simply loved the haunting strangeness of her characters. And then, a personal epiphany: my family’s copies of the novels were presents from an unmarried aunt, a trouser-wearing career woman with a harsh haircut, the same age as McCullers, who was called by the male diminutive of her name. The power of biography is to reveal universal truths.