Thursday, November 12, 2009

Biography vs. pathography

When I first blogged about biography, I didn’t imagine I would be able to come at the same subject from as many angles as I now have, including the following:
  1. dialogue in picture book biographies
  2. picture book biographies for all ages
  3. picture book biographies on lesser-known figures
  4. the morality of writing biography
  5. picture books for older readers (as an “official” category)
  6. how libraries shelve picture book biographies
  7. biography vs. storyography
Now for another head-to-head, this one between the sanitized biography and the warts-and-all one.

In “A Biography of the Biography,” an article in the 11/9/09 Newsweek, writer Malcolm Jones examines the examiner, the quintessential English man of letters, Samuel Johnson, with particular reference to biography.

Several of Johnson’s quotations have been in my file for years, but I’ve never read a book that he wrote. Still, this article confirmed that I like Johnson beyond his witty one-off observations.

In 1773, Johnson said, “If a man is to write A Panegyrick, he may keep vices out of sight; but if he professes to write A Life, he must represent it as it really was…”

I touched on this idea in the fourth link of that bulleted list above, and I agree. The goal of a biography is to approach the truth about a person. That truth must also be provocative, but in an organic, not sensationalistic, way.

Some say a story is only as good as its villain. Some people profiled in biographies play both the hero and villain role, at different times. All hero, noble as it is, can get boring. We like to see the dark side in others because it helps us confront our own dark sides.
And when a person doesn't seem to have a dark side, we tend to mistrust him, or at least the biographer.

The Newsweek article claims that “the story of a life has been our most durable and most enduringly popular literary form.”

I would’ve said fairy tale, but perhaps I’m misunderstanding the author’s definition of “popular literary form.” Then again, I’m not all that surprised. Most of us are, on some level, people-watchers, and all of us are influenced by others. We aspire to others’ good behavior and we view bad behavior as a cautionary tale.

This overlaps with another point I made in that fourth link:

In our time alone [biography] has multiplied into a dizzying number of forms—authorized, unauthorized, oral biography and autobiography, the group biography, the biographical novel, not to mention the online biography. What is Facebook, or most blogs, but a slew of autobiographies constantly in progress?
As I'd written, the more we post online about ourselves, the more raw material future biographers will have to refer to (though not all of it will be useful). Thanks to the Internet, more people than ever before (or so it seems) have been converted into autobiographers.

The article states that

the history of biography can be said to parallel, where it does not overlap, the history of the erosion of private life. There's no denying the proliferation of what Joyce Carol Oates defined as “pathography”—works in which a biographer fastens on to every loathsome detail of a subject's life, with the result that the subject is not cut down to size but simply cut down.
Apparently, this is a modern approach: “Nineteenth-century biographers weren't interested in flaws or the interior lives of their subjects.” This surprised me. Haven’t we all read multiple times that our ancestors (of most any era) were just as prurient as we are?

The article credits Lytton Strachey’s 1918 book Eminent Victorians with “proving that biography could aspire to art.” This, too, surprised me, because I would’ve thought that any book would’ve had that potential by 1918; by that year, literature was already enlightened, relatively speaking.

More than one of my biography posts have already concurred with this statement: “There is no longer any such thing as the definitive biography.”

Great figures (whether great in a positive or negative way) earn multiple biographies. Today there are also biographies (or memoirs) of people who were not previously well-known. Not all of those books are good, but this development is. Isn’t the best story the one you haven’t heard yet? If so, that means there are many best stories.

Yet when it comes to the lives of others, great or ghastly, famous or anonymous, “we will never know all we want to know.”

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