Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Impossible Art of Biography

I have been OD-ing on biographies. And autobiographies. And have come to the conclusion that they are in both cases, exercises in futility.

With autobiography, you're writing your own story. And for the most part, memory is fallible. Also, for the most part (if you're the decent sort) you leave out all the "inneresting" bits. (Unless of course, you're Liz Wurtzel, in which case, "that's just too personal" has no meaning).

Also if you're not a writer to begin with (in some cases, even if you are), your autobiography can come out jagged, unflowing, and run out of steam. It doesn't "end" in the conventional way. You simply run out of things to say. And the reader, (that's me) closes the book with a feeling of disappointment.

I think this is why I love reading books by acknowledgedly mad (or rather not quite sane) people. They romp merrily on the page, cheerfully chronicling their excesses (if not of action, at least of thought), never bothering to pander to conventionality.

Does this stem from some latent (OK, not quite so latent) voyeuristic tendency in me or is that, the carefully edited, "appropriate" memoirs are just too pale, too grey, too uncommitted?

If you're not going to tell it like it is, why bother to tell it at all?

And then there's biographies. Especially literary biographies. And if there is not much material to go on, if letters have been burned and notes destroyed by familial "protectors of privacy" then all the biographer has to go on is conjecture.

Here, most of all, you can see the chronicler, seeking to impose his/her point of view on the biographed. Sometimes these come across as an exercise in wishful thinking. Sometimes I want to slap said biographer silly. Which is why I feel the most that biographies of people long dead, are highly arrogant.

How dare you think you can know what they thought? Or felt? How dare you think you are smart enough to get into their minds? How dare you shrink fit them to your own?

OK, have had my rant. Now I think I will switch to fiction for a bit.

10 comments:

Grey Shades said...

Phew! Finally moved into the new house and now setting it up looks like a daunting task! I mean the junk we've collected is phenomenal! Ah well... Met V but thats a story for another occasion! :)

goldennib said...

Since we never really even know the people closest to us, I guess it is even harder to know strangers. Even people who are very open about themselves are selective in what they disclose.

dandelion said...

Jenn!!! I finally caught up on your blog...and I laughed and laughed...I loved reading it...first, all about London and then all the way back to August and the wedding and the MC-ing, Uncle Pepe and the hen night (And I still haven't finished). Glad you had a great time...despite benign disasters that you speak off. All of it added to the party, I am sure. I love you guys for doing it for me...I had loads of fun, thanks to you guys. I love your blog...and I know its going to be something I come back to often while in Koln. love u loadsxxxxooooxxxx

Jenn said...

Grey: OK I want ALL the details....leave nothing out...when can you talk?

Nessa: I guess the best biographies are works of art in themselves - they gesture about a person, without making assumptions (you know, kinda like the modernists) and are beautifully written.

Praby: OK I was going to ask you out for teh tarek but you are being a good girl so I may just come over and hang out. Btw, when are you gonna start your blog so I can keep up with your life? Also Bruce. Altho I think he will be busy. Both of you.

Jackie and Simon: OK I know you didn't comment but what about your blog? Waiting, waiting, waiting...(Oh yeah, and Mom said yes to summer)

QuillDancer said...

Jenn, I prefer objective old style biographies that just chronicle the deeds, and leave the suppositions as to "why" to the reader, or reveal the "why" in excepts from actual journals, diaries or letters. The new "get in their head and the the story from the subject's own POV" style is crap.

Jackie's Garden said...

Jenn - I like your rant today!

I came by way of Quilldancer's blog (she's my sister) because I just loved your 'frog in hot water' analogy!

I had a counselor once tell me that humans being very adaptable is a good thing/bad thing. That just as we easily adapt to a good situation - we will that easily adapt to a bad one.

I like your 'frog' way of putting it, a lot better!

Grey Shades said...

I'll call soon! My broadband service provider doesnt have connectivity in the apartment I've moved into! :( So making do with a dial-up connection these days...

Jenn said...

Quilly: Yes. Unfortunately as biographies have started to replace fiction as the reading matter of choice, they have started bringing the techniques of fiction into biography. Which is fine if you know how to handle it. But sometimes, it just gets too much.

Jackie's Garden: Hello. Welcome to my blog. About the frog...I could relate, having been through that before and adjusting, adjusting, adjusting till I found myself in a completely untenable situation. Glad you liked the analogy.

Grey: Aiyo, get broadbandlar! How can you survive without it?

Grey Shades said...

Yes yes! I've contacted another service provider and they should be able to help! Lets see...

A thinker said...

Biographies are fascinating. I think we all have a very voyeuristic desire to know what happened to others, how they lived, what they felt, what they thought.