[B]iography risks exaggerating a subject’s importance. Is it enough to document a public figure because they were there? Readability, reason and relevance — the three R’s of writing — are challenges that should not be overlooked. – What are the problems of writing biography?
I am more than the things I have done. I am the things I have imagined, the things I have dreamed. I am as much what I believe myself to be as I am what I have proven myself to be. My body has no choice but to live in the physical world but in my mind I can fly.
I don’t have a lot of biographies and even fewer autobiographies. And most of the autobiographies I have are not especially satisfying because they are written like biographies, as if the authors weren’t really present in their own lives: I did this, I went there where I got this. They don’t let us in, not like fiction does. The problem with biography is that it’s nonlinear; it’s always written looking back on events. Yes, you can say in which order it was written but experience is cumulative. The me who wrote Living with the Truth had only thirty-odd years’ worth of being me to draw on. The man who is writing now has fifty-one years which, of course, contain those first thirty-odd, but they’re not as fresh as they used to be; lives go off. When I look at them it’s with fifty-one-year-old eyes. I can’t remember writing Living with the Truth; I remember what I think it was like. In truth I couldn’t even tell you how many weeks it took to write. And I remember even less about its sequel.
I do have a partial autobiography written. It covers about my first thirteen or fourteen years which is how old I was when I wrote it. I’ve never read it since but my wife has. I’ve tried but I can never make it past the first page. One of the reasons I’ve never read it, other than the purple prose (probably more the violet end than indigo to be honest), is the fact that I know it’s a load of pretentious crap. It’s crap because it’s edited to take out all the stuff I didn’t want people to read, basically all the stuff, if I ever did decide to write a real autobiography, I’d want to talk about now. The names of my best friends or my teachers are of little relevance in the grand scheme of things. The reason I wrote the thing that way was because it was being written for a girl I was in love with, the first girl I was ever truly in love with although I had had a crush on another a few years before that. As she was going to be reading it – which she did – it had to present a picture of me that I wanted her to see and so it was heavily tuttied up.
There is a lot of autobiographical writing to be found online and I don’t just mean sites where we get a day-by-day account of what’s going on in their lives – got up, went to the bathroom, had breakfast, walked the dog, etc. etc. – but they focus on moments in their life often traumatic ones or if not the white hot events at the core of the trauma then the ones circling its centre. Much of this is simple therapy, getting things out of your head onto paper where you can view them objectively. Not a bad idea and one I approve of. I suppose the question is: why would anyone else want to read these scraps of writing? Clearly those who have been through a similar trauma do, which sounds odd at first – why wouldn’t they want to distance themselves from anything that reminded them of what happened to them? – but I suppose there’s some perverse comfort in hearing that others have been similarly tormented and survived. We want to be understood and the best people to understand us are those who understand what we’ve been through. But even if we haven’t been through what they have isn’t it fascinating to put ourselves in their place, to try to feel what they feel, to develop empathy?
I suppose so. I think the real issue here is can we understand that kind of pain by proxy?
Some people, of course, use true-life happenings to develop their writing skills, the ‘classic’ write about what you know proposition. Often these pieces end up being highly fictionalised and only contain the odd shard of truth. Here’s the opening paragraph to my short story ‘Relish’:
I bet you don’t remember the first time you had fish fingers covered in batter rather than breadcrumbs. I do, but you saw that coming, I’m sure. I was eight, it was 1964, it was teatime. I was sitting in front of the television – in a state of great anticipation – with my tray on my lap as the very first episode of Stingray was televised. Like all kids my age I’d grown up on a steady diet of Thunderbirds, Fireball XL5 and Supercar. This was a new beginning. We were all sitting there – not all in my mum’s front room you understand – but we were all together in spirit, Ronnie, Mousie, Tom, Paul and Drew. We were just kids. What did we know? We knew what we liked and Gerry Anderson would’ve been quaking in his shoes had he known that we six sat in judgement of his new baby as we did of Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, UFO and Space 1999. I have no idea what I was eating when any of those aired but I remember the fish fingers well enough. I ended up picking off the coating and just eating the fish. My mum complained at me for it but what do mothers know? I’ve eaten a lot of meals in my time and watched a heck of a lot of TV but I have no idea what makes that particular memory stick out
The first bit is absolutely true. I remember that clearly. I have no idea if the chips were straight-cut or crinkle but my tea that night was fish fingers, chips and peas, most likely tinned garden peas because that’s what my mum bought. The names are all boys I knew at some time during my school years but not at the same time. Here I make us sound like a gang but we weren’t. Ronnie was always called Ronald and Drew was actually Andrew. When I knew ‘Mousie’ (pronounced ‘Moosie’ – this was Scotland remember) he was still known as Derek; he acquired the nickname later because he never grew much and was as small as a mouse. At the time I watched this programme I’d never befriended Tom (although we were in always in the same class throughout school) and by that time Andrew’s family may have moved to Wales. Paul was the boy next door and we were never friends.
Andrew appears in my novel Stranger than Fiction too:
That was the house on the right, Number 8, the one on the left being Number 10. The rest of the street had been bulldozed into oblivion to make way for the new estate. Number 10 was home to his first friend Andrew Danzig. The Danzig’s were of Polish origin—Andrew’s grandfather, one Wladyslaw Danzig, a warrant officer in some navy or other, had ended up marrying an English girl and immigrated.
Needless to say he was not Polish although his surname is similar to Danzig and I never met his grandfather that I can remember. The Andrew in the book does leave for Wales through. It also records the fact that I saw a clip on TV once of some Welsh school kids and was convinced he was one of them but he didn’t join the family firm as happens to the Andrew in the book; he actually became a professor of mathematics – I googled him a while back. The grandfather was actually modelled on a retired Swedish sea captain I was acquainted with for a couple of years. And Andrew was my very first friend. Why include these details? Basically to give the writing a feeling of authenticity. The narrator in ‘Relish’ says he was brought up in a Scottish council flat. I was brought up in a semi-detached council house. I now live in an ex-council flat but not the same one I was in when I wrote the story. My one-time best friend Neil lived in a block of high-rise flats – it was those I was thinking about when I wrote the story – but you'll notice he never made the list of friends, nor did Ian or George or the other Tom.
When I look at this particular story I find it riddled with autobiographical details but only my brother or sister would have any chance in picking out the facts from the fiction. They’ll no doubt remember my mum saving Green Shield stamps from the Co-op though whether they’ll remember a trip to Ayr to trade them in I don’t know. The first time I was ever bought Edinburgh rock was in Ayr but I couldn’t tell you if my sister was there at the time. What I can tell you is that her name’s not Sally – I’ve never known a Sally.
My first girlfriend was certainly not called Agnes Clare McGuffey but she did become a born again Christian. The last time I saw her was also not in front of Tesco’s but rather outside the drycleaners I was working in at the time. And, no, she didn’t force a religious tract into my hand.
‘Relish’ was the first of a collection of short stories I began writing while I was stuck on my third novel. I think of it as a warming-up story – there's nothing essentially wrong with it and it’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve ever written but if it never got published I’d not worry about it. To my mind its biggest weakness is that it is too rooted in my own childhood and I can’t read it objectively; maybe it’s a better story than I imagine but I don’t think so.
I have a rather simplistic view of the differences between fiction and non-fiction: the first is made-up stuff, the second aims to be factually accurate. That doesn’t mean that an autobiographer can’t start a sentence with, “I think…” because, if truth be told, virtually everything we remember has to have that caveat attached to it. I’ve told the story about watching Stingray so many times now that I honestly couldn’t say with one-hundred-percent accuracy what happened that night. I remember I was sat in my dad’s chair slap-bang in front of the TV screen – probably too close – but I’m only assuming I didn’t eat the batter because I remember another time that I didn’t – perhaps I’ve got them mixed up in my head. Perhaps it was cut green beans rather than peas. I have no idea if I had a drink with my meal. Milk, perhaps? I don’t know. I don’t actually remember the show, the titles, yes, but then I’ve seen them dozens of times and they’re pretty well impressed on my memory.
There is a new(ish) genre of writing called ‘creative nonfiction’ that I hear people talking about. I imagine the Wikipedia definition is as good as any other:
Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact, but is not primarily written in service to its craft. As a genre, creative nonfiction is still relatively young, and is only beginning to be scrutinized with the same critical analysis given to fiction and poetry.
It goes on:
For a text to be considered creative nonfiction, it must be factually accurate, and written with attention to literary style and technique.
The best way to explain it is with an example. Although the term was not in use at the time George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London is a work of literary non-fiction; factually accurate and written with style. I think a lot of non-fiction writers felt they had to distance themselves from their subject even when that subject was themselves and so I’m happy to see a new genre emerging: give a thing a name and suddenly it becomes real.
The problem, as always, is that some people have thought that allows them to fictionalise the facts. A good example is Clive James’ memoir appropriately entitled Unreliable Memoirs where James admits right from the jump that he has incorporated fictional passages into his factual account. There was no hoo-ha about it in the press because he was open about it. Others, notably James Frey in A Million Little Pieces, have been ‘found out’ and that’s cast a cloud over the whole autobiography industry. He lied – that’s the bottom line that most people see – and the public generally doesn’t like being lied to. Biographers who don’t do their research properly also irritate us (Deirdre Bair’s biography of Beckett is a good example) but they’re only human and weren’t there at the time; they can’t help it if they’re lied to, all they can do is pass on the lie in good conscience.
I’ve never been tempted to write biography. It’s not that I’m afraid of the research because actually I enjoy research. I’ve never found anyone who interested me enough to justify the amount of time I know I would end up spending on the project.
[Hermione Lee, t]he biographer of Virginia Woolf … fervently believes that ''you have to have emotional feeling to do the work.'' She felt a profound sense of bereavement when she finished her biography and had to give Woolf back to the wider world. Silly, she knows – but ''I felt she had been mine.'' – Brenda Maddox, ‘Biography: A Love Affair or a Job?’, The New York Times, May 9th 1999
Not all biographers agree with her.
When Hermione Lee asked Peter Ackroyd, who has written the lives of T. S. Eliot and Charles Dickens, whether he liked his latest subject, Thomas More, Ackroyd bristled. Liking is irrelevant, he answered. Biography is a job, and he gets on with it. – Brenda Maddox, ‘Biography: A Love Affair or a Job?’, The New York Times, May 9th 1999
I think I would be more like Lee. I’m not sure I’m capable of taking a journalistic approach to recording the events in a person’s life. Of course if liking one’s subject were a prerequisite there are plenty of people whose lives would never be addressed except in fiction and the fact is the public has always been fascinated by monsters. We want to understand. No doubt that’s what prompted Truman Capote to write In Cold Blood but from all accounts he got caught up in his research and the book (rightly it seems) comes under criticism for not only its lack of objectivity but also the way in which it sensationalises the story. Tom Wolfe wrote in his essay "Pornoviolence":
The book is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught, since the answers to both questions are known from the outset ... Instead, the book's suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end. – Tom Wolfe, 'Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine', pp.163-164
It has also been argued that Capote changed facts to suit his story, added scenes which never occurred, and re-created dialogue. That’s the problem with reality. It so often lacks the edge that fiction has and yet we just love biopics, we don’t really care if the dialogue is 100% accurate; we just want to be a fly on the wall and imagine. That’s where faction is needed, the bastard child of fact and fiction. As I’m writing this there are ads on TV for Peter Bowker’s biopic of Morecambe and Wise’s early years and I’m really looking forward to seeing it. As for how accurate it’s going to be I’ll be content if the actors playing Eric and Ernie are believable. All the rest I’ll be happy to file under “it might have been like that” rather than expecting a definitive history besides, and this is the problem with written biographies, they only have a couple of hours, probably less, to say what they have to say. What to leave in, what to leave out – very hard. And as soon as you start selecting you start fictionalising, playing with what’s true and what might be true.
My own short novel, The Biographer's Tale, is about these riddling links between autobiography, biography, fact and fiction (and lies). It follows a poststructuralist critic who decides to give up, and write a coherent life-story of one man, a great biographer. But all he finds are fragments of other random lives – Linnaeus, Galton, Ibsen – overlapping human stories which make up the only available tale of the biographer. It is a tale of the lives of the dead which make up the imagined world of the living. It is a study of the aesthetic of inventing, or re-inventing, or combing real and imaginary human beings. – p.10
When I was in Morecambe last (first and last actually) I visited the statue of Eric Morecambe by Graham Ibbeson and stood in line (the British love queuing and automatically form an orderly line except at bus stops for some strange reason). As I waited for my few moments alone with him so that Carrie could take my picture I watched the other people. It was clear that everyone there had a great affection for the comedian and felt, I would imagine, a lot like how Hermione Lee came to feel about Woolf: he was theirs. I have read a biography of Eric but it wasn’t quite right: I was missing from it. Does that make sense? I was never a part of his life (except in the most abstract of senses, a member of an audience of millions) and yet he was very much a part of my childhood and despite the best efforts of The Two Ronnies Christmases never were the same after Eric’s death. I can’t imagine writing about Eric without writing about me. I can best explain Eric to you by explaining what Eric meant to me. The bottom line though is that Eric Morecambe is for most people an “imaginary human being,” but I think that is true about all of us; even those we live closest to, we imagine all sorts of things about. They say they love us and we imagine the love we feel for them is the same love they feel for us.
As I said before I have no plans at the moment to write a biography and I can’t ever envisage wanting to sit down and write the rest of my autobiography. Really it was pretty much all downhill after fourteen and what reason could I possibly have for dredging all that up? It could be argued that it gives the rest of my writing context. That I can’t argue with but I also think there’s a great danger in knowing too much about an author – as I do when it comes to Beckett – because it’s hard to read the work as it was intended to be read.