I enjoy showbiz biographies, the good, the bad, and even the ugly. If you’re an old-time movie fan like me, it’s fun to read anecdotes from people who were involved in making pictures you enjoy—or even pictures you didn’t like much. My most recent read was Robert Wagner’s autobiography Pieces Of My Heart, and I enjoyed it immensely.
Wagner, of course, started out as a juvenile lead, one of a group of young leading men that included Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson. But unlike some of the others in that group, Wagner has managed to keep working for the past sixty years or so, moving from leading man to character actor and from movies to television when the opportunity presented itself. Sadly, he’s also well-known for his marriage to Natalie Wood, which ended in her accidental death aboard their boat, the Splendor.
I said I enjoyed Wagner’s book immensely, and I did. It was written with style and verve and a nice balance between personal stories and views of the industry as it changed from old Hollywood to new. After I finished reading, I checked the reviews on Amazon out of curiosity to see if others enjoyed the book as much as I did. For the most part they did, but one negative review struck me particularly. The reader was outraged that Wagner had written the book with a collaborator, Scott Eyman. From the reader’s point of view, the presence of a collaborator meant that the voice in the book couldn’t be Wagner’s. The book was, therefore, a cheat, an inauthentic voice.
Now I obviously have no way of knowing how “authentic” the voice here is, just as I have no way of knowing what the working relationship was between Eyman and Wagner. Clearly, some collaborators do more than others. At least the collaboration in Pieces Of My Heart is acknowledged—not all celebrities are willing to admit they had help. And the experiences described are obviously Wagner’s. The book’s style is tremendously appealing and tremendously readable. Is that style Eyman’s or Wagner’s? I have no idea.
However, I’ve read or tried to read a few showbiz biographies that were written with little editorial help. I remember one recent one by a comedienne I particularly admired—I gave up before the end of the first chapter. It was close to unreadable.
The reader/reviewer who trashed Wagner would probably find that book more “honest,” but he would also find it a lot less easy to read. I’d argue that Wagner’s decision to work with a professional writer was a good one. He has a story worth telling, and one that deserved to be told well.
And I have a secret for the reader/reviewer: none of us does it alone, or at least we don’t if we’re smart. Even self-published authors hire editors if they know what they’re doing. Facility with language is a gift, and not everyone has it in equal amounts. Moreover, it’s very difficult to read your own prose objectively. At the very least critique partners and beta readers can give you a quick jolt of reality.
So Wagner had a collaborator, and together they wrote an absorbing book. The voice in this book may or may not be Wagner’s, but it’s an interesting voice that serves the story well. Given my choice, I’d far rather read a well-written collaboration than the alternative. More power to them both.