The Trouble with Biographies

I don’t read enough biographies. I want to read Nabokov’s biography, but the definitive version is  two thick volumes. How many butterfly hunts did he go on, anyway? I should just read Speak, Memory instead.  It’s one manageable volume, and it’s better written. I’ve been meaning to read Henry James’s biography for years, but as I dither more versions of his life come out, and I still haven’t read The Golden Bowl. Once, when I was in graduate school, I dreamt that I was reading a Henry James sentence that never ended. It went on for pages, through whole books. I awoke in terror at the prospect of getting trapped in an entire library of non-restrictive clauses.  Since then, when it comes to reading him I’ve been as tentative and uncertain as a Henry James hero.

Biographies are interruptions in my normal reading. I prefer the fiction to the author most every time. If a writer’s biography is more interesting than his or her works, I get suspicious. Even well-written, engaging biographies have limited readerly appeal. They tend to be really long with highly predictable plot structures: birth, early discovery of genius, development of first great work, big personal crisis, development of first not so great work, another personal crisis, second great work, a period of cruising on their reputation, health crisis, bitter and useless old age, death. If the lives depicted in biographies aren’t more contented than mine, they’re at least more purposeful. The seventeen-year-old Jean-Paul Sartre could grit his teeth and repeat to himself, "I am a genius, I am a genius . . . " because, at seventeen, he was Jean-Paul Sartre, an actual genius, at least for a while. He was already the person he was going to end up being. One’s own still unresolved life can only pale by comparison.

Both Mark Scroggins at the Culture Industry blog and Daniel Green at The Reading Experience are struggling with the issue of biography right now. Scroggins considers the issue of the popular biography. One purpose of the biography is to publicize the life of its subject, to set the person in our shared memories. A biography written only for specialists is certain to seal the dead in their tombs. However, biographies intended for wide audiences can suffer from the same benign editorial neglect and casual approach to facts as a business book. Ill-conceived biographies dashed off for a general audience do little to enhance the low status of biography in contemporary letters at a time when our personality-obsessed age could use a higher form of storytelling about the lives of the famous.

Green takes up the issue of biography as a form of criticism. Biography is considered kind of a low skill in literary studies, primarily because they can sometimes read like they’re a research notes dump rather than a thoughtful examination of a life and its work. James Miller’s biography of Michel Foucault is an exemplary instance of a critical biography. Other biographies I’ve read make its subject’s art seem like a side job, like serving on a local government committee. As Green notes, "Biographies are the closest thing to long-form criticism published by most presses, and the closest most readers of newspaper and magazine reviews ever get to extended consideration of even the most famous writers." But few biographers venture to interpret the works with much relish. Perhaps the anxious indecisiveness that compels the biographer to mention every dinner party her subject attended also leads to critical reticence. To criticize means to make choices, to accept one thing and not another. It also exposes the reader as a judging agent. That’s difficult when our age demands every scandalous detail of a famous person’s life, but without questioning the motives behind that demand.

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