Harlan Wilson’s The Biographizer Trilogy should interest writers—indie writers in particular—because of the way that it theorizes the production and sale of literary fiction in a digital world. That’s why I wanted to read it. I wanted to study Wilson’s game.
The entire trilogy evokes the metafictional ideas and themes of writers such as John Barth and Italo Calvino, but deploys them in order to examine the idea of the author and the book in a time when the value of art can be quantified by an author’s Amazon rank. Its representation of publishing is important and timely. The trilogy consists of supposed biographies of three well-known historical figures: Adolf Hitler, Sigmund Freud, and Frederick Douglass. The back cover of each book promises a genuine intervention into the life of its stated subject. The description of book three, for example, positions Wilson’s work as a “heretofore ‘lost’ autobiography” of Frederick Douglass that was “recently recovered on an archeological dig in Ireland, where Douglass lectured extensively in the 1840s.” The cover blurb of each book emphasizes its significance as an intervention into the life of its subject. A closer look reveals that these supposed accolades come from a series of professors at the nonexistent “University of Fostoria.”
You don’t have to read too far into the books before you realize that Wilson is essentially playing an elaborate joke. In the first line of the first book, he tells us that, “This book is not about Adolf Hitler, the German dictator, mass murderer, art school reject, cocaine and methamphetamine addict, and so forth.” Later, he reveals in the second volume, ostensibly a book on Freud, that “the idea behind this trilogy of biographies … is that it will achieve a parasitic connection with [related] biographies … at Amazon.com, the only viable marketplace in the twenty-first century publishing world.” He points out that “what’s inside the book is altogether meaningless” because Amazon’s algorithms will automatically link each volume with legitimate books about their subject through its listing of related items.
Wilson gives some legitimate advice through the books—don’t use Papyrus font, limit your consumption of processed foods, and make peace with the fact that publishing promises futility for all but the very few. Even as he presents his authorial persona as a globe-trotting figure who uses his royalties to purchase mansions in exotic locales, he continually returns to the sad state of contemporary publishing. As he tells it, the financial reward of fiction is “nominal, even with Big Six publishers.”
That said, Wilson offers more than a pessimistic takedown of contemporary publishing. Rather, The Biographizer Trilogy serves as a kind of analytical biography of independent publishing itself. One theme that Wilson returns to, particularly in the book “about” Freud, is that writing itself is both a kind of repetition compulsion as well as an act that gives pleasure. In one place, Wilson tells us the work’s moral is that “you are not special … [and] I am no exception.” In another, he justifies his trilogy by saying that “It’s about me. Specifically, it’s about my experiences as a person.” The trilogy doesn’t resolve the opposition between these two statements. Rather, the tension between these two statements generates the trilogy. While we don’t actually learn much about these three exhausted historical figures, we learn something even more valuable: the ways that books are made and sold are sometimes more important than the stories they contain.
Dean Swinford is the author of Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis (Atlatl, 2013), a comic novel that explores heavy metal music and culture.