Using the “I” in Biography and Other Writing About Others

Two days ago I wrote about the use of biography in memoir.  Today I want to address the use of memoir in biography—or, to be more exact, writing about others that includes the author as a character.  This is done quite often in profile writing.  Susan Orlean, for example, begins one of her best-known profiles, “The American Male at Age 10,” with a whimsical imagining of how things would be if she and her 10-year-old subject were to marry.  (Spoiler alert: It ends with the boy slingshoting dog food at her butt).  In many profiles, the author isn’t just an interviewer or chronicler; she’s part of the story.

The presence of the writer/interviewer is an expected feature of Q & A’s, of course.  In the best of them, what we witness—what we enter into—is less an interview than a conversation, a give-and-take discussion between two intelligent people.  Yes, the discussion leans toward the ideas and work of one of the two participants, but the interviewer plays a significant role, bringing not only her knowledge but also her thoughts and personality to the interaction.

Even so, there is a curious reluctance among biographers and critics to allow a biographer to appear in his narrative.  One reviewer of my biography of Robert Lax took me to task for doing so, saying dismissively that I should have written a second book, a memoir, if I wanted to write about our relationship.  A more respectful reviewer for a different publication suggested more delicately that “readers will differ as to whether the author’s injection of his own voice in the text adds to or distracts from his subject’s life story.”

Yet it seemed false to leave myself out of a book about a man I’d known well for 15 years, and I took pains to do all of the research any biographer would do to write the full story of Lax’s life.  In fact, those same reviewers who questioned my presence in the text praised the extensiveness of my research.  I felt—and many readers (and reviewers) have agreed—that my intimate knowledge of my subject allowed me to bring him more fully to life. The New York Times’ reviewer, in fact, called my “memoir” sections “vivid and engaging.”  Which shouldn’t be surprising, of course, since they came from direct observation and experience rather than a piecing together of quotes from letters and interviews.

It strikes me as strange that an author’s personal account would be denigrated when biographers regularly use any and all writings in which other people describe encounters with their subjects.  I can understand the suspicion that writing about someone you knew well and even admired might prejudice your account.  And there are any number of questionable biographies written by members of a subject’s inner circle—biographies that betray an agenda.  But why would use of the “I” or first-person observation indicate an agenda or hidden bias any more than any other way of writing about a person?  Hackwork is hackwork, whatever its point of view.

And there is a point of view in biography, whether acknowledged or not.  In recent decades, nonfiction writers, in general, have abandoned the so-called “objective” approach to writing about their subjects, recognizing that all writing is subjective, influenced not only by one’s particular experiences and education but also gender, class, race, sexual orientation, national origin, philosophy, creed, etc.

Despite this more general awareness in nonfiction writing, biographers continue to write in—and in many cases, insist on—a mostly Victorian style, composing their cradle-to-grave narratives as if taking dictation from God—as if the story they’re telling about their subject is simply fact-based truth.  In his book How to Write Biography: A Primer, for example, Nigel Hamilton, who fills his pages with all kinds of good advice for first-time biographers, never discusses the possibility of using the “I,” except when castigating Edmund Morris for injecting a fake “I” into his biography of Ronald Reagan.

What is most curious of all, perhaps, is that virtually all biographers praise a book in which the “I”—and, to some extent, memoir—figures prominently: James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson.  One of the main things they praise, in fact, is how fully Boswell brings his friend to life by describing Johnson as he knew him, relating words Johnson said in his presence, and showing Johnson in scenes he witnessed.  In my copy of Boswell’s book, 242 pages cover Johnson’s 54 years of life before Boswell met him (when Johnson was 54) and 1,001 pages are about the 21 years Boswell knew him.  In other words, 4/5 of the book is drawn, to a large extent, from Boswell’s personal relationship with his subject, rendered in text peppered with Boswell’s “I.”

There are biographers who use the “I,” of course—even extreme prejudice among peers against a particular technique can’t keep some brave souls from employing it.   When J.D. Salinger kept would-be biographer Ian Hamilton from using quotes from his letters and interviewing people close to him, Hamilton turned his book into a search for knowledge about his subject, “incorporating within it,” as the book’s jacket copy says, “his own sometimes poignant, sometimes comic, sometimes exasperating quest for Salinger.”

The researching and writing of any biography is a quest.  A personal endeavor.  Not every biography has to include the details of that quest, but there’s no good reason why a biography shouldn’t either.  A biography is a story, an encounter, a vision and version of a person’s life.  I, for one, enjoy when a biographer like A.J.A. Symons, in his book The Quest for Corvo, takes me along on the researching adventure, using whatever material will best engage me and bring his story most vividly to life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.