Be inventive: Write biography

Larry Doyle 22TC

July 19, 1993|By Larry Doyle

JOE McGinniss' forthcoming book about Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, "The Last Brother," would hardly be a literary milestone -- just another Kennedy book that won't be on display at the Kennedy Library -- if it weren't for one small thing.

As Carolyn K. Reidy, the president of Simon & Schuster, the publisher, delicately put it, "Joe has taken biographer's license to discuss [read: make up] the thoughts that certain people might have had."

Mr. McGinniss is more candid: "This is a biography, not a work of journalism."

It's admirable that Mr. McGinniss wishes to free biographers from the shackles of journalism. (If his conversion were truly complete, he might at least have testified on behalf of his former journalistic tormentor, Janet Malcolm, who -- ah, sweet irony -- was sued by Jeffrey Masson for making stuff up.)

In fairness, Mr. McGinniss isn't the first biographer to fabricate soul-searching internal monologues to smooth over those inevitable dry patches that occur when the subject won't talk to you.

What did break new ground, though, was the note that appeared on the copyright page of excerpts sent to booksellers: "The events and circumstances described in 'The Last Brother' have been extensively researched by the author. Some thoughts and dialogue attributed to figures in the narrative were created by the author, based on such research and his knowledge of the relevant places or events."

Or, in actual English: Warning: This non-fiction product is not 100 percent fiction-free. Small particles of fiction have been added to preserve readability.

This new literary form, the publisher's disclaimer, is such a handy legal and editing time-saver, it's a shame the publisher decided to ditch it just because a bunch of journalists threw a tantrum.

In fact, such a disclaimer might have been useful in the past:

The events and circumstances described in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" are based on the author's experiences as a boy. Some plot elements, in particular the harboring of a runaway slave, were invented by the author and should not be construed as an incitement to commit illegal acts.

The events and circumstances described in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" have been vividly imagined by the author.

Some thoughts, dialogue and dream imagery attributed to Alice were created by the author, based on his extensive intimate contact with the subject. Alice, while delighted with the narrative, wishes it to be known she would never speak to adults in the bold manner depicted.

The events and circumstances described in "Ulysses" are based on the author's extensive knowledge of history, art, language and Dublin pubs. Thoughts, dialogue and punctuation attributed figures in the narrative are solely the creation of the author and in no way reflect the private and chaste thoughts of the publisher.

The ideas and proposals presented in "The Way Things Ought to Be" are not necessarily those of the publisher, or of anyone else named Limbaugh. (Also, the author is heavier than he appears on the book jacket.)

The women described running with wolves in "Women Who Run With Wolves" are mythic characters created by several generations of storytellers. The publisher does not recommend that women run with actual wolves and can accept no responsibility for those who do so.

But, then, why get into any legally sticky specifics?

The publisher has not read this book, has no record of it in its files and does not recognize the book jacket. The publisher also denies ever having met the author, whoever he or she may be.

Larry Doyle is executive editor of Spy magazine.

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