Book Review: Literary Life: A Second Memoir by Larry McMurtry

I found this book during a random search of the biography/autobiography section of my local library. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit that as much as I can remember I have never read anything before by McMurtry – not that it matters. There are many writers esteemed to be among the best that I haven’t read. I’d need a hell of a lot more time than the years allotted to me to read them all. McMurtry is renowned as the author of Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show, and other works mainly set in Texas. He also co-wrote the screenplay of the film Brokeback Mountain, for which he received an Academy Award.

Literary Life is part of a trilogy of memoirs by McMurtry about the important professional interests that have defined his career. The first is about his involvement in the buying and selling of books and setting up bookstores. The second is about his life as an author, and the third is about his efforts in Hollywood as a screenwriter.

This memoir is quite short, and is written in a fluid, easy to read style. It’s a relaxing read; there are few conflicts. McMurtry sold his first book, Horseman, Pass By, fairly easily and quickly when he was quite young, and it was soon after optioned and made into the film Hud. Book after book followed, and though none did outstanding financially until Lonesome Dove, they were all accepted and published and several became successful films. In a certain sense, this account of the writer’s life is unintentionally deceptive, as McMurtry makes it look too easy. Maybe he struggled too, but if he did, he doesn’t let on in this memoir.

What comes across, actually, is a style of reportage that makes you feel as if you are sitting in McMurtry’s living room in Texas, your boots up on the coffee table, a glass of whiskey in your hand, and he’s telling you stories from his life in a congenial, friendly, non-confrontational manner. No controversy, no stress. I don’t mean this as a disparagement of the book. I enjoyed it, actually, just as I enjoy hearing a portion of a life story at a gathering of writers. It’s fun to read what he has to say about major literary figures he has met, his relationships with his editors and agents, and his stint as president of the PEN American Center.

It’s not easy for me to identify with McMurtry. As I said, he has led a charmed professional life compared with most writers – at least that’s the feeling he gives as he recounts his experiences in the publishing world. Maybe his stint as a screenwriter was a rougher experience. I will probably check out memoir number three to find out, and to hear more interesting stories of how he managed to navigate his course through the morass that is the film writing world. All in all, I can recommend this as a decent, entertaining, though shallow, literary memoir, but I would not recommend that beginning writers take McMurtry’s experiences as any sort of standard by which to measure their own budding careers.

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