Curing biography bloat: Follow seven simple rules

The Argument

A credo by a biographer to discipline and focus an increasingly abused form.

April 11, 1999|By Joan Mellen | By Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

Lillian Hellman said it in her best Hammett-esque voice: Biography -- as distinct from the memoirs she was writing, which could omit anything -- is the whole life, from beginning to end. Biographers have their own cliche: "from cradle to grave." Alas, too many biographies of the past decade have been tomes of undigested flesh, unified by neither purpose nor conviction.

To the biographer is granted the sacred task of weighing the achievement, judging what is extraordinary against the detritus of flawed everyday life. The biographer must keep in mind that all human beings are, as Wilhelm Reich observed, good candidates for therapy. From the biographer must issue sympathy for the tragedy of being human, for our all having to endure a third act, even those American lives where the second act is missing.

The mini-biographies now being published by Viking in response to biographies of gargantuan proportion are no panacea. Unable to recount the full story of the life, they fail to satisfy the reader's appetite for immersion in how figures of bravery and achievement lived. Calling themselves "biographies," they are not meaningful restoratives against the reflexive academic regurgitation of factual bloat.

I propose a seven-point credo for biography, the better to return the form to its original purpose:

* Biography tells a story: Plot, the trajectory of the subject's life, must emerge in bold relief. Biography should dramatize emphatically the shower of reverberations arising from the subject's choices, then reveal how the same life may drift in a fog of aftermath.

Cause and effect are the cartilage of biographical storytelling. Biography should take a stand, define important moments and isolate turning points. It should locate the consequences of roads not taken, the damage of risks ventured and evaluate the subject's resilience.

* Biographies can be works of art: Biographies need be writerly and authored, which is why Larry McMurtry, a connoisseur of character, would make so superb a biographer, and why so many academics have undermined the genre. "Fact withers in the heat of myth," he writes in his Viking mini-biography about Crazy Horse. The crystalline lucidity of McMurtry's prose makes up for the brevity necessitated by the scarcity of source material about Crazy Horse.

* Biographies should stick to the known: Biographies should not speculate nor should they laden their narratives with "imagines" and "perhapses." Biography lives on demonstrable fact; circumstantial evidence has no role in biography. Claire Tomalin constantly conjectures in her biography of Jane Austen. "If their aunt Philadelphia was in charge..." she wonders. "We may speculate boldly," she declares. If she doesn't know something, she shouldn't put it in.

Biographies have grown obese on such biographical gluttonies, the relating of what did not happen. "Jane Austen did not see her father beat her mother," Tomalin tells us, even as we know full well that she was raised in a quietly genteel home. "She was not sent to work in a blacking factory at the age of twelve," Tomalin continues.

The absurd comparison with Charles Dickens does not aid at all in the discovery of who Jane Austen was. One individual is not another, nor are residents of the same culture and history necessarily blood brothers.

Analogies are to be shunned, but not because they add to the length of a biography. Size in itself is no impediment to a work of biographical distinction. Witness the muscular, confident sentences of Robert Caro or the incantatory prose of Hermione Lee's all-too-brief 893-page "Virginia Woolf."

* Biography must shun historical trivia: Biographies whose chapters open on impacted lumps of historical effluence fail in their craft. There is no justification for topical irrelevancies, which can only congest. That a book is not only about one character, but includes that cliche, "the life and times," is no excuse for a reflexive engorging of pointless data.

History breathes in a biography only when it has had an immediate impact on the subject's life. In writing my biography of the short story writer Kay Boyle, I included a chapter on the Great Armory Show of 1913. Kay Boyle herself was only 11 years old at the time, but her viewing the centerpiece of that show, "Nude Descending a Staircase," foreshadows her later friendship with one of the great influences on her life, Marcel Duchamps.

* Biographies do not justify: The apologizing biographer is no better than the bore who recounts how he came up with his findings, on what dirt road after what flat tire. Biographers who make themselves the heroes of their books have fools for subjects. Nor should biographers make allowances for the subject whose behavior is reprehensible.

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