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Should Biographers Ever Step Out Front in Their Books?

The other day, trying to catch up with a backlog of London Review of Books issues, I noticed an ad for Hermione Lee's Lorna Sage Memorial Lecture last summer, "Giving Oneself Away: Biographical Experiences." Hoping that it had been videotaped, I searched online but couldn't find a trace of it. Still, Dame Hermione's topic called out to me.


When I was a journalist, one of the cardinal rules was never to become the subject of your stories. You were there to observe and question others, not as a participant in the published piece. The New Journalism —pursued primarily in magazines — had removed this straitjacket decades earlier, but daily newspapers remained overwhelmingly true to the original stipulation.


Similarly, among the few rules widely followed in biography is the injunction never to become a character in your own book and to make only the most sparing use of the first person pronoun. This always made sense to me. The only time I made a brief entrance, in my biography of Grace Hartigan, was the brief description of my interview with her decades earlier. It would have seemed too coy to hide behind the words "a journalist" and consign my identity to an endnote.


Of course, every biographer's "I" is imprinted all over her book in the details she has chosen and the point of view she expresses. But there is no need to trot out the first person. In a sentence like "This was proof of her tendency to overrate the people she loved," it's obvious that the opinion is the author's. Biographies written by academics are more apt to include first-person statements to underline a remark (e.g., "I believe this version was in fact not submitted for publication"). I think this is a function of the way academics view biography as a means of promulgating their own thesis about the subject rather than simply as a narrative of the life.


In recent years there has been a movement toward biographies that resemble fiction, with invented episodes and even invented dialogue — two inadmissible features of standard biography. I realize that it is very difficult to write about people who have left no written record, whether because their lives predated written records or because they were enslaved or otherwise denied the ability to speak up for themselves. But I still feel that the author either must find another workaround for such lives or write historical fiction instead.


Another newly popular wrinkle is the biographical approach that mingles aspects of the writer's own life with that of her subject. It's one thing to explain (in a note or preface) how you came to write your book; such information can help create a bond with readers. But I believe in a clearcut distinction between biography and memoir. Yoking your (usually, unhappy) personal history to the life of a well-known person is generally little more than an attempt to evoke sympathy. The genre of memoirs by the children of famous people exists in a liminal space that so often tells us too much about the author and not enough about the Famous Person without whom there likely would have been no publisher's contract.


© Cathy Curtis 2024


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