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Two Approaches to Literary Biography

Two approaches? Of course, there are as many ways to write a biography as there are biographers. I am addressing the broad differences between a literary biography written by an academic who has many spent years studying and forming theories about her subject and a literary biography written by a non-academic (often, a journalist) whose previous engagement with the work is simply as a deeply appreciative reader.


The problem is that academics inevitably judge all biographies by their own standards. A biography lacking a strong central theory about the subject is believed to be virtually worthless, and chronological organization is considered far inferior to a topical approach in which chapters each deal with a particular theme.


I can't speak for all non-academic biographers, of course, but I never start (or conclude) with a theory or a concept. My books are always the first comprehensive biographies of my subjects; their lives are fascinating new territories to explore. When I begin researching, my mind is open. I am simply collecting data. As I write, I am guided solely by the need to organize the wealth of material I have discovered in a readable form—but without attempting to superimpose some concept of my own. I know that I will tend to support my subject when thorny issues arise, though I will feel free to question any self-reported activities and statements if—and that's a big "if"—I have factual evidence to the contrary. Just because something sounds odd or surprising does not mean it did not happen, especially when dealing with distant times and unique circumstances.


As a former journalist, I am primarily interested in reporting the accretion of details about a person that forms a narrative of her life. The only way to do this persuasively is to organize the book chronologically. My objective is to introduce readers to the range of my subject's work and the way it relates to her life, and to present that life in a beguiling way, so that my biography will be nearly as lively as a novel.


Since I am not a literary critic, I don't feel that it's my job to pronounce upon each work that I briefly describe—briefly, so as not to bog down the narrative—or to judge which works are her best. When something about a work begs to be criticized or celebrated, I do so; otherwise I quote contemporary reviews to give a sense of the way the book or play was received in its era.


It is always important to present a picture as complete as possible of the world the subject lived in, stopping short of including lengthy historical material that would halt the narrative flow—which is always a paramount concern when writing a biography for general readers. (I put some of these details in endnotes, but nowadays readers can easily find additional information online.) As corollary, I believe is a grievous error to expect lives lived at other times to conform to standards of behavior of the twenty-first century. While blatant mistreatment of another human being can never be condoned, we learn much more by trying to understand the past than by condemning it out of hand.


© Cathy Curtis 2023

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