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.

Questioning Conventional Approaches To Writing About People

This posting comes from a journal entry I made on July 14, 2013, shortly after I began the final revision of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax.  I had just read the second of two books by prominent biographers about their craft, part of my early research for the book I’m working on now: about the history, process and ethics of writing about people.  As you’ll see, I was already having doubts about conventional approaches to biography:

“What surprised me about the book was how fairly shallow the author’s thinking was.  There was plenty of researched detail but the conclusions were all conventional.  It’s as if those who think about biography are willing to explore only a limited range of thoughts, most of which deal with the practice of writing biography, not the larger questions the act of writing about others raises, such as:  Why do we write about others in the ways we do?  What does it mean to take responsibility for defining another person’s time on this earth?  What obligations do we bear when we appropriate the creation and presentation of another person’s identity?  What are we ethically bound to reveal about ourselves in the process?

“This latest (and I hope last) revision of the Lax book is bring my own thoughts on these questions to the surface.  I feel more comfortable now that I’ve brought myself into the story.  I tried to keep myself out, thinking I was somehow being truer to Lax’s story by not entangling it with mine.  I see now that by stepping more fully into the book, I’m giving the reader a better reason to be interested in Lax’s story and being more honest in a way, showing my biases.

“I’ve begun to look at the book quite differently.  Instead of a chronological movement through Lax’s life, I’ve begun to see my project as a pile of material drawn from the different parts of his life that I need to arrange in a way that will interest my reader.  Whereas I moved through his life in a straightforward fashion in my previous drafts, now I’m using the story of my interactions with him as the organizing element, pulling in information from the different periods of his life as it fits this scheme.  So my curiosity and developing understanding of him over the years propel the story forward, and elements such as his ancestry come in where they are necessary to satisfy that curiosity or further that understanding.

“Put another way: I didn’t learn about Lax’s ancestry until I’d known him quite a while, so it doesn’t need to be at the beginning of the story.  Putting it at the beginning means taking on a God-like role, suggesting that you can step back and impartially observe the sweep of a human life.  Letting that information come in at a more natural place and speaking of what I’ve learned about it more provisionally allows the story to feel more natural.  Isn’t that how we learn about people ordinarily in life?  We don’t learn someone’s ancestry when we first meet him.  Generally we learn the most interesting bits and pieces of his life, the stories he knows are good stories to tell, before our curiosity and a deepening trust allow us to delve deeper.  That’s more the way I’m trying to tell the story now.

“My models for this approach aren’t the biographies I’ve read (other than A. J. A. Symons’ The Quest for Corvo, perhaps, or maybe Boswell’s Life of Johnson) but novels such as The Great Gatsby, Zorba the Greek and maybe Lord Jim, in which an embodied narrator talks about a person he’s met and come to know better over time.

“Edmund Morris must have had a similar impulse when he created his fictional witness for Dutch.  It’s related, too, to what one of my students said after reading George Plimpton’s book about Capote, which is a pastiche of commentary on Capote from various people who knew him or had dealings with him.  She liked this approach to biography, she said, because it seemed less artificially mediated.  Instead of working to create a composed (and imposed) structure, the person compiling the biography allows those who knew the subject to give their testimony, their perspective, with the compiler only correcting errors and arranging the various commentaries into a natural progression.

“In using this more natural approach, I’m going back to the roots of writing about people, which is talking about people—gossip and then legend and then myth.  Myth or legend doesn’t have to be about someone great or powerful or even ancient.  It only has to be about someone interesting.”