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Biography: What Is It?

Biographies are selling like hotcakes. Biographies are becoming fictional. Coincidence?

By Erik Beach

Sartre's novel Nausea, the main character Roquentin is unable to finish his biography of a historical figure. Roquentin ultimately ends up questioning his own life as well as the life of his subject. Sartre's philosophy deals with the problem of viewing another life and one's own very differently, and whether any life can be expressed as it was really lived. Roquentin wishes for the type of meaning in his own life that one can bestow on another's life after the death of that person, where everything in that person's life can be viewed as following a central design and moving towards a goal. The problem inherent in writing a biography is that any representation of the person's life as leading to a logical goal or conclusion fails to reflect the chaotic, first-person perspective in which the subject actually lived his or her life.

Yet this doesn't seem to stop the reading public from snapping up biographies as if they were retellings of polar expeditions. A glance at the New York Times Book Review bestseller list for nonfiction reveals that biographies take up a large share of the popular market. Regardless of what the domination of Harry Potter books on the fiction bestseller list might indicate about the typical reader of today, just as interesting is the number of biographies on the nonfiction list. Of the top 15 bestsellers last week, only two non-fiction books can be classified as having no biographical content or slant whatsoever.

Of the many bestsellers that are bio-related, quite a few have deviated from a strictly biographical form. Have a Nice Day!, detailing the professional wrestling exploits of the wrestler known as Mankind, and The New, New Thing, the story of technology/computer pioneer Jim Clark, both represent a move away from the typical biography in which the life of a single person is the subject of the book. Instead, these biographies tell readers about a larger phenomenon through a smaller lens, funneling the world of professional wrestling and technology into personal stories that readers can relate to and understand. Given that biography is used here as an enticement into an otherwise dry text, it seems that ever-problematic truth might not be the most important thing in writing biography.

After all, in addition to accurately describing a life, biographies give the reader a chance to get into some famous person's head. Two current bestsellers probably owe their success to this phenomenon: When Pride Still Mattered, the story of Hall of Fame Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, and John Glenn: A Memoir, the life of the former Mercury astronaut and former senator. Both of these books are about people who lived lives far removed from that of the average book-buyer, making the chance to relive their lives all the more thrilling. In the case of the current bestseller Galileo's Daughter, although readers might not be that interested in the daughter herself, they do get a chance to look at Galileo at an unusually intimate distance. This "relive the life" approach demands a book very different from, for example The New, New Thing. Small details matter, whereas no one is too concerned what technology wizard Jim Clark had for lunch every day (Lombardi had a daily hamburger) or where Mankind happened to grow up. The focus is the individual, and while that focus often includes the larger scope of the endeavors that individual is involved in, these biographies never lose sight of the fact that they are describing a person, and not an event or a phenomenon.

Yet, pedestrian as book-buyers' motivations may seem, the recent proliferation of biographies shows that biographers today are indeed playing with the conception of biography as a genre. In Sarte's novel, Roquentin's struggles with this problem led him to abandon his biography. Those who persevere and finish a biography have made many choices along the way that are vital in determining what sort of biography will emerge. These questions can be divided into two categories: how the author obtains and interprets the sources concerning the subject, and exactly how the subject is defined.

How a biographer obtains his or her information of the subject often determines what sort of biography will emerge and who will want to read it. A fortunate biographer will have the cooperation of his or her subject, access to all relevant primary documentation and numerous secondary sources. Certain kinds of biographies can be written using only one of these three sources. The biography of an athletic or entertainment superstar can be based solely on interviews with the subject, while biographies of historical figures are obviously limited to the documented sources that remain. Often a coherent biography can be drawn from primary sources alone, although one of the dangers of such a method lies in injecting one's own opinion into the subject's work, often resulting in a rather one-sided view of the subject. Of course, an incomplete portrayal of a subject can easily be construed as an unfair one, and it is this implicit danger that no doubt often encourages the reader hungry for intrigue or second-hand gossip to purchase a biography. Such is potentially the case in Nicholas Fox Weber's Balthus.

Balthus is the biography of the mysterious subject, "a painter of whom nothing is known." These figures are always attractive to biographers, who feel that they get to reveal the figure behind the curtain. Balthus was an enigmatic contemporary artist most noted for his highly sexualized portraits of young girls. His paintings, which often featured sadomasochistic imagery, were deemed so scandalous during their debut in 1934 that one was removed from its public display in Paris.

While Fox Weber initially worked with Balthus on the book, he writes that "to keep my freedom once I realized I was writing about someone as unscrupulous as he is brilliant, almost as talented at lying as he is at painting--I pretty much stopped meeting with Balthus." It is interesting that although the biography is technically Fox Weber's work, this seems somehow scandalous. Fox Weber is the artist here, right?

The exaggerations of Balthus could very well be his own fictions, but it could also be the case that the "real" Balthus was simply not living up to the thrilling figure that Weber had imagined him to be. Throughout the book, Weber relies on analysis of Balthus' paintings as practically his only source in constructing his life, which provides the reader with only a weak characterization and superficial understanding of Balthus. Unfortunately, Weber appears to take to heart the epigraph from Oscar Wilde that appears at the beginning of the first chapter: "I treated art as the supreme reality and life as a mere mode of fiction."

As the construction of biography is itself an art form, Wilde's assertion poses a problem for biographers: do you place more emphasis on the life of the subject, or on the artistic value of the biography itself? One of the most controversial and talked about biographies released this fall was Edmund Morris' Dutch, a biography of former president Ronald Reagan that grappled with just this question. By including a fictional character in the midst of his otherwise serious biography, Morris caused an uproar over the standards of factual and historical accuracy in the literary world while asserting his belief in the artistic merit of biography. Although perhaps compromising the historical integrity of the book, Morris' use of fictional elements is a deft stroke used to illustrate the workings of his subject's mind.

This new infusion of fiction into the contemporary biography seems as much a symptom of readership as of much-pondered methodology. It may be ultimately impossible to recreate someone's life in words, and therefore perhaps one might as well add a bit of fiction to a biography. But a much more compelling reason for creativity in biography stems from the problem of entertaining the reader. If the reader wants to relive the life of John Glenn, why not let the reader relive an embellished life of Reagan, in a sense more complete and enticing than the real thing. Does it really matter what Balthus was really like? At least we can relive the life of some character named Balthus. After all, there's a reason that non-fiction works are protected from having to compete with fiction on the bestseller lists. People read fiction.

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