Thursday, August 6, 2009

Your life, my book: the morality of writing biographies, part 1 of 2

At one point, August was National Biography Month. I wrote it down a while ago, which means I got it from somewhere. However, Googling it (in quotation marks) now reveals that few sites mention it and only one puts it in August.

Did they discontinue it because the greeting cards didn’t sell?

In any event, now is still an appropriate time (as appropriate as any) to talk about the (print) lives of others.

In 2007, I saved an article from The New Yorker about the process and perils of writing biographies. Just as biographers dissect their subjects, I have dissected this fascinating analysis of people who write intimately about other people they (oftentimes) never met.

This is how the article starts:
At a time when instruments for recording and disseminating information about people’s intimate behavior are cheap and easy to use, and when newspapers and magazines and television programs and Web sites purvey that kind of information without restraint, and when even ordinary people apparently can’t do enough to tell the world everything about themselves, a defense of the professional biographer’s right to pry does not seem something that civilization stands in dire need of.
Even more so now than just two years ago when this was published, our privacy is trading its protected status for status updates. Quite often, the more one says about himself, the less others are interested, yet that isn’t stopping many of us from tweeting our every twitch.

Future biographers of anyone who came of age in the Digital Age will have it both easy and hard. Easy because so many of us are over-documented. (Their lives are already stored online!) And hard because so many of us are over-documented. (Is there anything left to discover?)

About Meryle Secrest, who has written biographies of people including Frank Lloyd Wright and Salvador Dali, and who wrote a book about writing biographies:
Many of her stories about getting the story involve figuring out ways to…massage the relatives, friends, ex-friends, lovers, ex-lovers, work associates, lawyers, dealers, executors, and agents…who obscure a clear view into the private world of famous people.
Anyone who knows or knew the subject of a biography-in-the-making—and who is still alive, of course—is a biographer’s research priority. The conundrum about that is that memory is unreliable, and even if it wasn’t, people lie. Biographers sometimes present a seemingly trustworthy person’s recollection as fact without backup proof because there simply isn’t backup proof—consider, for example, an anecdote from a long-ago cocktail party that (as far as we know) no one recorded or journaled about immediately after. People I’ve interviewed more than once, with months separating the interviews, have contradicted themselves about events they personally experienced.

“The older I get the more sympathy I have for families who discover that some stranger has decided to write about their famous member without, as it were, so much as a by-your-leave. Prurience titillates…leading to bigger sales and better royalties for the writer who is, not to put too fine a point on it, making money from others’ misfortunes.”
So are biographers vampires, feeding not on the blood but on the feats and flaws of others? When I first read what Secrest wrote about "others' misfortunes," I was startled by how uneasy it made me feel—I get paid to write about people who will not get paid. But the U.S. Constitution does grant us the right to speak and write freely. And as Oscar Wilde apparently said (see, I wrote "apparently" because I wasn’t there): “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

(By the way, I had to look up “by-your-leave.” It means “request for permission.”)

Part 2.

1 comment:

Gary Golio said...

Just read your two-page entry linked below--well done. I especially liked the excerpted sentence--"A biography is a tool for imagining another person, to be used along with other tools. It is not a window or a mirror."--and would add that, at least for me, imagining or entering into another person's life provides me with fuel for my own. I am not so much interested in titillating info (in adult non-fiction) except that, as a therapist, it allows for some understanding of how motivation underlies behavior. But my main reason for writing juvenile biographies is to offer examples of humanity--in all their messiness and beauty--which allow kids (developing/striving human beings) to learn about strategies for living and developing their own skills. That sounds so high-minded, but knowing/seeing/hearing that Jimi Hendrix' hours spent listening to his father's old blues and jazz records trained his ear and hands, points a way for a kid who may be discouraged after picking up the guitar for five minutes. In the end, I write my biographies for myself, because those stories teach me how to move from day to day, how to persevere, and how to achieve goals that I've set for myself, whether they involve playing music or becoming the superhero of my own life.

best, and thanks for the good read,