Friday, August 7, 2009

Your life, my book: the morality of writing biographies, part 2 of 2

(First read part 1 of 2.)

In her book about writing biographies, Meryle Secrest describes talking to a source about a subject’s possible connection to organized crime. The source said, “If you quote me, I won’t kill you but I’ll get you killed.”

Makes the threat of a lawsuit seem like an offer for a free chocolate milkshake. No one has threatened to kill or sue me. The worst so far: a few have been testy and one wanted a cut of any profit. There’s that vampire feeling again, even though writers do not need to compensate people they write about. (If they did, newspapers could never have existed.)

The purpose of biography, Secrest says, is “not just to record but to reveal.” That’s what many people would say: that there’s no point in writing, or reading, the life of a famous person if it doesn’t uncover some previously unpublicized piece of personal information.

One exception to this is the picture book biography. They may—but do not need to—contain a bombshell. They do need to tell the person’s story in a compelling way. Most new picture books about Benjamin Franklin don’t overturn previously held beliefs about him, but any new one should come at the subject with a fresh approach. That may be focusing on a little-known incident in an otherwise famous life, or telling a person’s story non-chronologically, or presenting a life in a stylized (but still factual) manner—using, say, rhyme or humor.
…a biography that did not use events in its subject’s personal life to explain his or her renown is almost unimaginable. Still, the premise poses a few problems. For one thing, it leads biographers to invert the normal rules of evidence, on the Rosebud assumption that the real truth about a person involves the thing that is least known to others. A letter discovered in a trunk, or an entry in a personal notebook, trumps the public testimony of a hundred friends and colleagues.
This is why I feel every picture book biography doesn’t need to emphasize—or necessarily even mention—the person’s childhood. The early days of a notable adult are often fascinating, but if not, don’t force it. In some cases, adult greatness simply cannot be traced back to moments in childhood, at least not explicitly. Besides, as the article later states:
People like the notion that a little luck is involved in success—that becoming famous could be sort of like winning the lottery. One day, you’re riding along on your donkey or in your Honda Civic or whatever, a voice speaks to you, and suddenly you are on the way to being St. Paul or Leonard Bernstein.
The essence of the turning point is that it is retrospective. No one realized at the time that when little Johnny Coltrane put down the duckie he would go on to create “A Love Supreme.” But all biographies are retrospective in the same sense. Though they read chronologically forward, they are composed essentially backward. It’s what happened later, the accomplishment for which the biographical subject is renowned, that determines the selection and interpretation of what happened earlier.
Biographies, strictly speaking, are not true stories. They are approximations of true stories. They are true moments strung together in between many more true gaps. Any life is too large for any one book. Every biographer must decide what to put in—and what to leave out. They are separate processes.

In Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, I chose to include the fact that Joe Shuster used his mother’s breadboard as a drawing surface, but within that fact, I chose to leave out the claim that he could not use it on Thursday nights because that’s when his mother needed it to make the challah for Shabbat.
…only a sliver of what we do and think and feel gets recorded...
…and even less makes it into a biography.
A biography is a tool for imagining another person, to be used along with other tools. It is not a window or a mirror.
True. It is more like a fraternal twin—it has some relation, but is not, and never can be, the exact same.


Shana said...

I think there are many kinds of biographies. Those that give a glimpse into life during a time period of the past. Those that give insight into HOW someone of reknown or achievement came to make their success. those that cheaply dish and feed our desire for details on the famous regardless of the importance of those details. The facts of a life are the ingredients in the recipe which is a person's life, the biographer is the chef though and what one person can do with potatoes has NOTHING to do with another. biography writing is not moral or immoral in and of itself. The PURPOSE of the book matters as does the intended audience. A biography targetting young adults on the life of MLK is on a much higher level than a biography of Paris Hilton. Pick the right lives, highlight the important take-aways, write insightfully and you'll sleep 14 cents.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Great point that neither I nor the article touched upon.

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