The biography is a form of portrait. It seeks to render a (once-)living and fallible character accurately and completely, to create a better and fuller picture than memory alone can muster. Authors of biographies aim for the most definitive and authoritative air, for the widest possible scope to deal with every anecdote and psychological foible which can be attributed or sourced to a single person. To present their subject objectively and exhaustively, like a photograph which can forever be expanded to reveal newer levels of depth and detail — the effect of which often reveals more of the biographer’s reach for authority than the subject has objectivity to offer. To me there’s a fraudulence here — in the claims to authenticity and objective authority — for what are essentially works of writing like any other. There’s a leap of presumption made by readers in turn which buys into the myth of the Most Complete and Authoritative Work Yet — a presumption riding the comfortably wide gap between pure and well-nigh impossible written objectivity on the one hand and speculative, interpretative fiction riding the coattails of fame, a famous persona rendered by gossip and tabloid innuendo, on the other extreme. For the bio sits somewhere in between, between lies and precise truth. Most biographers choose to fill the gap with as much of themselves as they can master (style, presentation, the authoritative and editorial conclusion). The process of biography is not unlike shadowing and ghosting for nothing — beside being a narrative, a biography is always a dual character accounting. In turn, biographers enjoy the same authorial perks and popularity as hardcore fiction writers do with their readers.
It’s a double trade-off considering the difficulties of accurately rendering character and identity in print, creating yet more print, and more detailed circles of speculation. The facts of a person (as much as they can be recorded) become representations, which are then annexed by further interpretations which beget more definitive interpretations by other biographers and commentators, which all then feed into the broader discourse about a subject: his work and influence, relations and friendships, coincidences and appearances and parallels and a thousand other streams tied in. Perspectives from the family, lovers, friends and associates, minders and hairdressers, astrologers and trainers, whomever could possibly claim a degree of intimacy — the thinner the better it seems, pushing the bio closer to tabloid gossip. But which in the end only look like so many stories and historical novels neatly arrayed on shelves.
The patent aura of fiction seems to have entered these great reads. From the way these books are written to the way they’re marketed and consumed, little seems to separate them from novels. Or rather, the slightly fraudulent claims to truth and clarity they purport seem hollower than ever.
Here’s my proof of fraudulence:
- The many and secret forces which shape a personality, which constitute identity, are inexplicable. If we could add up the net effects of personal psychology, origins and culture, circumstance and life event — everything that could possibly go to constitute the manifold facets of identity, we’d still have an incomplete frame or gestalt to explain and render that particular person.
- Therefore all biographies which claim to paint authoritative or exhaustive pictures along this supposedly objective line must/should concede this essential shortcoming in their attempt — which, since they don’t, makes biographies suspect failures, or, at best, fictional representations. All supposed truth and fact, when represented, involve approximation, editing, metaphor and perspectival slant, ie the tropes of fiction.
- Or, at the very least, biographies should admit that narrative-fictive concerns like readability, action-packing, intrigue and dramatic characterisation and conflict are just as important to their authoritative concerns.
So much for a quick character sketch of the biography.
There is of course no palliative course of action which can be undertaken here without seeming petty and pedantic, and I don’t mean to offer any directly. Biographies exist expressly because we trust their authors and their claims to thoroughness, intimacy and objectivity, not the work. The Author Function is just as relevant here. We (I mean the biography-reading public) are just as likely to be true to the biographer’s brand as to the novelists’. And especially where there is debate about the future of the novel, we often miss the glaring fact that it is biographers who have taken over the reins and carriage of the classical novel. Only they have the cash incentive and easy footwork to deal with what Norman Mailer called the ‘bitch’ medium, willing to carry on the themes of grand narrative and character drama. Our modern novels, in turn, read like so many biographies. Manqué biographies.
I had an idea, in thinking about profiles and biographies, to exploit this (occasional) nearness to fiction and personally-motivated perspective to the full by writing against the journalistic approach of objectivity and observation — that is, not by interviews and direct access, by reasonable quote and assured rendition, by chumming up the distance between profiler and subject (faithfully noting the subject’s habits and quirks, facial and expressive peculiarities, his tone-setting background and contexts, entrances and departures, the usual stab at upbeat ending etc) but by taking that distance for granted. Never by reconciling the work and the man for a mealy audience hungry for drama and gossip, but by sheer extrapolation from works alone. To take the subject’s works as the real biography, unified by personality. Reliant, therefore, on the profiler’s skill and imaginative force as a writer to render character by what are, ultimately, fictive- or narrative-oriented techniques (in journalism) anyway. To draw a biography without apparent facts. To use the intuitions of the reader-interpreter, the paint abstractly. To paint knowing-interpretatively.
[Actually, this partly came in reaction to a profile of New Yorker profiler John Lahr (who’s profiled Roseanne, Mike Nichols, Sontag, Spielberg et al, to drop names). Lahr habitually spends several months shadowing a subject in building up his piece. And I mean closely — he follows them down, follows them out amongst friends and colleagues; on the crapper and off — which I think is totally admirable and warranted when it comes do doing the footwork for a biographical portrait, as any portrait is complex and broad. The qualities and essences of a person only come across slowly, indirectly, in a long and gradual conversation of interaction and collaboration, where a mere hour is never enough. Fair nuff. As a journalist, this lends credence to Lahr’s opinion and weight in other fields of comment. But the method is by no means as absolute as it seems, nor might it be the healthiest from a creative POV. Lahr is at least masterful at reducing or effacing his own presence from the profile; to which I’d say, why not all the way?]
One learns everything one needs to know about Mailer from his novels and extended biographies in fiction. One doesn’t need to know how ugly the real character of Agatha Christie really was. One perceives Ballard fully from his range. As with Hemingway. There will always be room for the full journalistic approach — but I’d be interested in reading a profile of an artist (preferably a helpfully reclusive one) where the writer consciously and unhesitatingly announces his profile an appreciation of identity by exegesis alone. At least then the presence and quality of the interpretation would come to the acknowledged fore (remember every representation is an interpretation). The distance between his subject might also incline the writer to greater honesty because it’s his reputation that’s on the line, character-wise, as there’d be no safe nook or editorialising vantage point from which to dismiss the artist and his personal faults or failings. The entire narrative premise would sink like a turd. Because the writer can keep more of himself, he doesn’t have to condescend to effacement in the hope of seeming objective.
A biographical painting based purely on the works, an hermeneutic biography. Its nearness to criticism could lead to alarmingly academic thinking, but with the accent on imagination and the explicit acknowledgement ‘I never met him’ and ‘This is almost a fictional characterisation’ — coupled with the fact that no artist wants to be nailed or packaged into a reductive and often misrepresentative column anyway, might lead to a profile which even the subject might want to read for its divergence, otherness and honest fiction. So much better than all that feigned intimate acquaintance.
Especially when considering that what we consider ‘an author’ is usually a multiple construct or projection anyway. The author of his own fiction might grin and chortle to recognise the same fiction from another storyteller’s POV.