Should Memoirs and Biographies Really Tell All?

Sarah Glazer asks two prominent biographers if they’ve ever withheld information from their readers at sources’ request—and gets some surprising answers.
When writing your memoir, who claims the greatest loyalty—your reader or those family members you portray? This is one of the many ethical and style issues addressed in The Arvon Book of Life Writing: Writing biography, autobiography and memoir, by Carole Angier and Sally Cline. Primo Levi biographer Angier and Lillian Hellman-Dashiell Hammett biographer Sally Cline modeled the book on their week-long writing course in England under the aegis of the Arvon Foundation, which sponsors residential writing courses in inspiring spots like poet Ted Hughes’ country cottage. They’ve also invited 20 prominent authors, from Janet Malcolm to Alan Bennett, to submit guest essays with their own how-to advice about writing in these genres. I asked Carole and Sally about five provocative issues they raise in their book.

1. Why do you think memoirs are enjoying such a boom today? “Misery memoirs” like Angela’s Ashes have been described as the world’s biggest boom sector. Is this a good thing (producing more good books?) or a bad thing (showing we’re more egocentric)?

Carole: I think it’s a good thing. It will produce a lot of bad books, but if it produces a few more good ones, that’s a price worth paying. We are more egocentric, but I don’t think the memoir boom shows it. Writers are always egocentric – they always write about themselves, even (or especially) in fiction. And if they’re good, the egocentricity drops away: writing about themselves, they write about us too. Bad memoirs are egocentric, good memoirs aren’t. The same as any other book.

Sally: I do think people generally are not only narcissistic but strangely (to me) more willing to expose their often trivial lives (or the trivia in their lives) to large masses of people.

2. You say that life writers are the “immigrants” of literature, objects of “fear and suspicion” to the natives—both to fellow writers who see them as debasing the profession (Virginia Woolf called them “craftsmen not artists;” Germaine Greer calls literary biography “pre-digested carrion”) and to those they write about (objecting to an invasion of their privacy). Can you describe an instance in which you’ve been the brunt of this suspicion from either fellow writers or subjects of your writing? And did it tempt you to change your immigrant ways?

Carole: Primo Levi’s widow watched me like a hawk, and when I came too close – asking to interview her concierge – she sent me a feather-flying letter, in which she accused me of exploiting her husband for money. (I wish!) The moral was not to ask.
In the literary world, things are changing. When I was invited to the splendid Toronto Festival in 1991, it was the first year biographers had ever been admitted; and we were not allowed to read from our books, like other writers, but had to give a talk about our subjects. Michael Holroyd gave a lovely talk, hilarious and moving. When the applause died down, he said: “Every word of that came from my book.” That was the start; now there are often more life writers on best-seller lists and at festivals than any other kind.
Will I change my immigrant ways? Never. Invasion is the trade of life writers – of all writers. We all use the people we know for our readers, present and future. We just (!) have to do it well enough to make it worthwhile.

Sally: I have one single compelling instance where this was true. I was researching my biography of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. I flew to California to interview Hammett's close family. They had previously been interviewed by a well known American female biographer for her biography of 'my' subjects. In the view of the family they had been betrayed, deceived and misquoted to an alarming degree! They therefore initially viewed my entry into their lives with cynicism and deep skepticism.

I decided to forget about the biography and my reasons for flying to LA.
I concentrated on becoming part of their group of friends. I spent many days living alongside them. Ultimately they began to trust me and they opened up and the material I received from them in a warm open friendly fashion became a wonderful core to the book.

3. What do you think of experiments in biography like Edmund Morris’ Dutch, where biographers invent the thoughts of their subjects or insert themselves? You say “We are all postmodern now” and it’s impossible to be objective—Is this the trend of the future? Is it a good thing from the point of view of good writing and the reader’s satisfaction?

Carole: Morris inserted himself wildly in his biography – he invented a whole fictional scenario, in which he is constantly at Reagan’s side, like Woody Allen’s Zelig. That’s too much fiction for biography, in my view (though it’s a matter of judgment.)

This doesn’t mean that biographers can’t insert themselves at all – non-fictionally, as the writers of their texts. The quest biography – like the classic Quest for Corvo, or Richard Holmes’ Footsteps – is one of the most elegant forms of the genre. In my Primo Levi I interweaved the main story of Levi’s life with small chapters of my quest (and often failure) to discover it; some readers loved this, but some loathed it. Good writing – or anyway experimental writing – does not always go together with reader satisfaction, as we know. Perhaps biography will follow the novel and poetry, and divide into literary work admired by critics and prizes, and popular work that people read. That would be a shame. We should try to keep our experiments readable; though writers must follow their star.
As to inventing our subjects’ thoughts – I don’t think that is ever legitimate.

Sally: I love experiments in biography. I love fictional pieces and insertion of the narrator. I do it myself though I try to keep it to small areas of each book. I believe we should widen the search for the 'truth' to a search for the imaginative "truth of a life."

My long-held view is that a biography is just one version of the so-called 'truth'. If fiction can help us get there more profoundly within a biography I regard that as productive.

4. You say it’s privacy that underwrites the honesty of the diary, but that in today’s Internet world with blogs and twitter, “privacy is extinct.” Will we lose the honesty that makes diaries meaningful as they’re replaced by blogs and other forms on the Internet?

Carole: People are happy to say publicly what they wouldn’t have said even privately a few decades ago. Think of reality TV! They don’t want privacy any more – they want their 15 minutes of fame, no matter what for.

“Good!” psychologists might say. And perhaps biographers should too. If people hang their private thoughts and feelings out on the Net instead of hiding them in attics, that makes things easier for us, not harder. But of course it’s not that simple. Once people have got their fame, they want their privacy back as well. And while they’re blogging and twittering their hearts out, are they really being honest? Not necessarily, of course – blogs and tweets are performances. But so are diaries, even if only to oneself. So privacy will never be quite extinct, for better or for worse. For human truth, we will always have to dig for victory.

Sally: Solitude and privacy seem to me to be the most important elements for a writer's life before she can share her work with readers. I agree with Carole that diaries, journals, blogs, Facebook outbursts are never 'honest'. They are performances.

5. In an essay in your book, Janet Malcolm likens the biographer to a burglar, rifling through drawers with the complicit reader. She says the “misdeed” of Sylvia Plath’s biographer Anne Stevenson was to “hesitate before the keyhole,” because she was taking into account the vulnerabilities of living friends and relatives. Was that a biographer’s “misdeed” in your view?

Carole: Well, Malcolm was being ironic, in her complicated way – she’s making fun of Stevenson for her moral scruples, but her own main point is a satire of biography (and journalism) for its immorality. As Lyndall Gordon says, “What we do is morally indefensible”; but as Philip Roth said to me (!), when I worried about invading the Levi family’s privacy, “Piss or get off the pot.” What I find is that I can be ruthless with people I’ve never met, but not with those with whom I have a relationship, however limited. So if I’m your husband’s biographer, it’s better to talk to me than not. But that’s not true for all biographers. If you want a biographer, that’s the sort of thing you ought to know in advance; but in fact you only find it out in practice. In this way as in many others biography is like marriage, but (with rare exceptions) there are no pre-nup agreements in biography.

Sally: I can be more invasive with people with whom I have little or no connection. When I know the subject's families and friends well, this is very hard. I have on occasion honored the family's need for privacy and withdrawn information they gave me from my finished draft. This occurred most notably in my biography of Zelda Fitzgerald. I became good friends with Scott and Zelda's granddaughter and she gave me information she later regretted. After much discussion I took it out. I have never regretted my decision.

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Tags: #nonfiction, #process/craft, Carole Angier, Sally Cline, biograpy, memoir

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Comment by Brooke Linville on August 22, 2010 at 6:26am
A memoir is also somewhat of an artificial construct. We give it a story arc when sometimes there isn't a natural one. We insert our own meaning into situations as opposed to strictly sharing factual information (and our perceptions of events would make this impossible anyway). In memoir in particular, life continues on after the constructed story ends.
Comment by Kevin Camp on August 21, 2010 at 12:31pm
Sometimes I think every writer embellishes for the sake of interest. Look at Mark Twain, for example. But the question then remains as to whether capturing the interest of a very preoccupied pool of readers would be possible with strict honesty. When active reading seems to be on the wane, do we have to modify our approach to suit the times?
Comment by Brooke Linville on August 21, 2010 at 9:12am
@ Jeannie- It wasn't spin, but rather my interpretation.
Comment by Jeannie Dail on August 21, 2010 at 8:21am
Brooke, it's nice of you to try to spin it for them, but that is not what they said.

Carole gave it more leeway and said they are performances and are not necessarily honest, whereas Sally said they were all performance and were never honest.

It is what it is.
Comment by Brooke Linville on August 21, 2010 at 5:52am
@Jeannie- I didn't get that they were trying to be derogatory. I think that a blog, memoir, journal, diary are all meant to tell the story we want to tell, show the side of ourselves that we want to present to the world. Even in a diary, it's our truth that's penned, sometimes because we are trying to convince ourselves of our rightness in storyline (my 12 year old journal was an art form in this!). In my reading of the above, I took it to mean that we have to be sure that we realize that is our tendency and dig deeper for real truth.
Comment by Jeannie Dail on August 20, 2010 at 9:46pm
I would like to backtrack on this issue of honesty with blogs and even diaries. You both said and agreed that both are not honest because they are performances--once they have been dug out and penned, they are out--this makes them a performance? What about with a memoir book or biography? Once penned and published, is it, too a performance? I am not getting your usage of the word "performance." Did you use it as a derogatory term. If so, I have to disagree. This is my perception: No matter how it was dug, once it was penned, whether it was onto a diary, in a blog (if it was meant as a serious memoir) or into a manuscript/book, it has been outed. So ... since you didn't say a book was a performance, I am wondering if you think a book is the only way to write something genuine?
http://the-stuff-in-between.com "The day we lost each other" (My genuine, non-performance blog post)
Comment by Brooke Linville on August 20, 2010 at 1:48pm
I love the idea that blogs, tweets, and even diaries are performances. I think some people are more apt than others to perform from their souls, and in the case of not maybe there's some discord between their truth and human truth (and that might come off as disingenuous when it's not meant to be).
Comment by Victoria Costello on August 20, 2010 at 11:24am
I think another frontier to scale is the hesitancy on the part of publishers to accept intense personal memoir (not a polite and slight narrative frame) integrated with reporting, especially science reporting. It's as if an acknowledged personal interest or experience disqualifies the writer from addressing a topic. This is old news in academia where "objectivity" rules. My recent experience with this came while shopping a "science memoir" via my agent to 12 mainstream publishers most of whom said they liked either the science or the memoir but couldn't see both together. Fortunately, a large independent publisher with a good science list "got it" just fine since they'd done well with another title that did the same combo and my book is now slated for hardcover release in 2012. (I'll share more details soon). Anyone else experience this? Read more about my book at www.victoriacostello.com
Comment by Lauren B. Davis on August 20, 2010 at 10:16am
Terrific.
Here's an article I wrote on this subject which was published in the Globe & Mail:
http://www.laurenbdavis.com/blog/?p=80

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