Bobble-Heads, Curses, and Buffism: Current Issues in Biography (Part 2)

  • June 21, 2011

The Future of Biography

By Charles J. Shields

The ranks of hearty souls who have traditionally signed-on for these adventures might be dwindling. Academics, says T. J. Stiles, have largely abandoned the profession for fear of being accused of endorsing the parochial great man view of history. Also, academics tend to write in an— well, academic way, which doesn’t sell books. “They tend not to be concerned with the literary qualities of biography, which I think are essential to lifting the endeavor to the heights that it can attain.” Brian Jay Jones, also the author of Washington Irving: An American Original, dislikes how academy-speak reflects poorly on the genre. “The crappiest Irving bio out there is the two volume one written by the Yale scholar Stanley T. Williams [published in 1935].  It’s well researched and thorough, but Williams is irritated right from the outset that Irving is not of the intellectual caliber he expects him to be, and thus spends the next nine hundred pages crabbing about him in a very pissed off and non-entertaining way. But tenure accomplished, I’m sure.”

Some professional biographers might be reconsidering their choices because they can’t afford to continue writing fulltime.  Biography is research-intensive and expensive. Costs eat through publishers’ advances pretty quickly. By comparison, a snug cubicle in a history or English department, and a benefits package, begins to look mighty attractive.

Third, gone are the days (perhaps thankfully) when another book about Lincoln would be a welcome addition to the 16,000 already written. Nigel Hamilton, president of Biographers International Organization (BIO) and author of American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush explains. “It is now no longer enough for a biographer to do what the reader can do himself or herself by looking up information on the Internet. This in turn means an author cannot hope to sell a book merely on his or her access to libraries and archives, as in the old days. The biographer now must offer a thesis/view/perspective substantially different from, and better than Wikipedia, etc.” In other words, the heat is on to be creative, original.

Ironically, not even this may be enough for the trade publishers. Jonathan Eig says the economics of publishing today call for the bobble-head test. “On the shelf next to my desk I’ve got bobble-head figurines for each of my subjects: Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, and Al Capone. The bobble-head test is a good one, although not a perfect one. A person must be pretty well known to merit a bobble-head. Does that mean I should exclude subjects who are not bobble-worthy? I’m not sure. I do feel pressure to chose subjects that have a chance of racking up strong sales.”

Catherine Reef, author of thirty-five young adult biographies, finds that publishers in her genre are reluctant to gamble on someone who isn’t well-known, or doesn’t have a curriculum tie-in. Mary Bowman-Kruhm, who writes nonfiction for the middle-grades, has been trying for several years to find a publisher for the life story of a young Maasai warrior straddling the past and present. He watches his village’s buffalo herd while talking, as any teenager would, on his cell phone to friends. No interest from editors. “I get annoyed when I see yet another biography of George Washington,” she says.

A trend that might emerge is actually nothing new: biographers would revert to type. We began as amateurs, and perhaps many of us will become amateurs again. No one asked (as far as we know) Renaissance painter Vasari to write Lives of the Artists; and definitely no one asked John Aubrey to pump his famous acquaintances for gossip, which he sometimes misremembered in Brief Lives (“Sot that I am!”) The libraries of the world are filled with biographical works written by laypersons: civil servants (Tacitus); monks (Roger of Croyland’s life of Beckett, 1214); nuns (Margaret Anna Cusack, biographies of saints, late 1800s); and ladies (Cecil Woodham-Smith’s Florence Nightingale, 1950). In fact, the writing of biography has never been taught at the university level, and even the professionals who practice it usually arrive with backgrounds in journalism, history, or creative nonfiction. Furthermore, e-books offer the opportunity to bypass traditional publishing and allow would-be biographers of all stripes to write and sell what they want. Since celebrity and scandal will always sell, perhaps flash biographies of this summer’s singing sensation, or next winter’s fat-loss expert will steal our readership, seduced by the odor of tabloid rot.

T. J. Stiles would not like to see biography buffs promulgate “buffism.” Amateurs, in his experience, tend to be driven by a special passion “rather than either a literary approach to writing or a well-grounded, contextual approach to the subject matter. We need professional biographers, but the economics of today’s marketplace are making it tougher for us.”

Hence, it may be the end of a golden age of biography, or the beginning of new one. The sun seems as bright at dawn as it does at sunset. But human beings’ fascination with each other is constant, guaranteeing that the future of the genre is assured. It’s comforting to readers and provides an antidote to loneliness to learn from the events, reversals, and triumphs experienced by others. As Samuel Johnson said, “Biography is, of the various kinds of narrative writing, that which is most eagerly read, and most easily applied to the purposes of life.”

Charles J. Shields is the author of And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Henry Holt & Co. November 2011) and vice-president of Biographers International Organization.

I want this book: Politics & Prose OR

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