Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Biography vs. storyography

Life is not simple.

Writing a book about a life is not simple.

Now even determining what word to use to describe a book about a life is not simple.

It used to always be “biography,” end of (true) story.

Then, to quote the sharp blog Fomagrams, “In a 1998 article for School Library Journal Julie Cummins proposes the word storyography as a way of differentiating whole-life biographies from those that choose to focus only on a section of the subject’s life.”

The term is intriguing, though it hasn’t gone mainstream. (Maybe that’s partly why it’s intriguing.)

Fomagrams cites the elements of storyography, according to the Continuum Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature:

  • picture book format
  • incident-focused
  • possessing child appeal, or from a child’s perspective
  • not part of a series
  • shaped by traditional story components

Fomagrams sees two problems with storyography.

First is “the necessity of omission.” However, as I mentioned in a post about library shelving of picture book biographies, a biography is but an interpretation of a life. It’s not a birth-to-death live blog—it can’t include even a fraction of the incidents that added up to the actual life of the subject.

If something occurred in person but is omitted in print, does that reduce the book’s truthiness? And that’s just deliberate omissions. What about events that remain unknown to everyone (or most everyone) besides the subject? Given these inevitable and understandable limitations, all biographies are, on some level, fictionalized, or perhaps I should say stylized.

Second is accuracy: “Nowhere in the definition of storyography is there any mention of the accuracy of the details.” With storyography, if story is the priority, is that at the expense of facts? In other words, do storyographers tweak the truth if the truth does not suit their narrative flow?

I assume many people writing picture books about real lives aren’t familiar with the term “storyography.” They’d describe their books as either biographies or fictionalized biographies; either label makes clear where the book stands with regard to accuracy.

Fomagrams concludes, “Biographies are nonfiction. Storyographies are semi-nonfiction.”

But that seems too sweeping. Take, for example, Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. From conception to publication, I considered it, without pause, a biography,
and not just because that’s easier to pronounce than “storyography.”

Yet here are those storyography elements again, now with a check where
Boys of Steel qualifies:

  • picture book format - check
  • incident-focused - check
  • possessing child appeal, or from a child’s perspective - check
  • not part of a series - check
  • shaped by traditional story components - check

Regarding the second bullet, my story proper (meaning the illustrated portion) covers roughly only ten years, 1930-1940. A librarian noted the following: “Your book contains biographical information, but is not a biography, per se. It contains biographical info about the two men as it specifically relates to the subject of their cartoon, but not a great amount about other parts of their lives.”

That seemingly puts it in storyography territory. Point: storyography.

Yet the book ends with a three-page, text-only author’s note exploring what happened after Superman (the merest mention is made of their lives before him). Its word count almost equals that of the illustrated portion’s. Though that hardly makes the book comprehensive, perhaps it nonetheless nudges it back into biography, even if some kids will not read the author’s note. Point: biography.

Yet that story proper is told in a narrative, not journalistic, style. Point: storyography, even though I don't believe the definition of biography precludes narrative style.

That leaves Fomagrams's astute point about accuracy as the final factor.

Since I can back up every fact I used in Boys of Steel, I stand by classifying it as a biography. Point: biography.

Yet if there is (as I believe) such a thing as a factual storyography, Boys of Steel is also that. Point: storyography.

Match: storyography?

Actually, when taking into account one other point, maybe a tie.

Boys of Steel is currently the only standalone book on Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Being the only book on a topic does not automatically entitle it to whatever status its author wants, but I do feel that if such a book, however short, is factually sound in all that it does include, then it’s the closest we have to a (point:) biography, and therefore becomes our de facto one until further notice…

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