Tuesday, 11 June 2013


TO BIO OR NOT TO BIO



Oscar Wilde said, "Every great man nowadays has his disciples and it is always Judas who writes the biography." No doubt there's truth in that, but for every Judas there is also a 'toadie' writing sycophantic slop, and one is as distasteful as the other.

I’m thinking a lot about biographers – because I can say now that I have joined their ranks, albeit on the lowliest rung– and wondering why we do it. It’s a hard slog: all that research and interviewing; all that dodging and weaving of delicate issues. I’m thinking, because I’m worried I’ll do it again. I keep meeting people I itch to write about.

I waded through a lot of biographies in the course of writing my own book and I was sure about the ones I didn’t want to emulate. Not for me the cheesy, sweetness- and-light treatment, but by no means do I like gratuitous scandal, either. I want to present a warts and all picture that makes the person and his actions understandable; a real person, neither saint nor devil. As Bernard Malamud said, “…all biography is ultimately fiction,” and as any fiction writer knows, a character who is entirely saint or sinner won’t engage the reader very long.

It seems to me that biographies all too often fall neatly into one or other of these two camps. Christian writers, in particular, often present a saccharine view of worthy, upstanding individuals who have done much good in this world. In the light of all that these people have achieved, why is it necessary to ignore their mistakes and failings? To address such issues is not to muck rake, but to demonstrate that the grace of God is greater than their failings. Then there is the other camp, populated by sensation seekers who delight in  the dirty linen so beloved by readers of gossip magazines. Scholarly biographers don’t fall into either camp, of course, but some do get bogged down in the painfully boring detail of careful research. 

I have great appreciation for the secular biographies written by Peter FitzSimons; he is a riveting read. His treatment of the Australian boxer, Les Darcy, was the first one I read, it being the only one of his titles not out on loan at my local library. I had no prior interest in boxers or their sport, but FitzSimons made Darcy's story completely un-put-downable. I went on to read four more titles in quick succession, each one showing me what it was to write candidly but without condemnation. 

I'm still searching for my ideal christian biographer. To be fair, I haven't, so far, read as widely as I might.  All suggestions gratefully accepted!.

6 comments:

  1. I really agree. The honest biographies are so much easier to relate to than the saccharine ones. As for Christian biographers, I love John and Elizabeth Sherrill who ghost wrote biographies with Brother Andrew (God's Smuggler) and Corrie Ten Boom (The Hiding Place). They really know how to tell a story and keep you turning pages.

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  2. Thanks for the suggestions, Nola. I read both of those many years ago and enjoyed them, too, as I remember. I didn't realize they were ghost written though - thought they were straight autobio's. I should check out the Sherrills to see if they have more recent titles.

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  3. Great point about finding the balance in biography between hagiography and salacious gossip. One thing the Bible isn't is saccharine - as it presents the heroes of the faith as fallible human beings transformed and enpowered by the grace and love of God.

    An autobiography that I read recently is Steward Briscoe's Flowing Streams. He speaks of his mistakes as well as his successes. Similarly, Sheridan Voyseys' Resurrection Year is a very honest account of his and his wife Merryn's struggles with infertility and faith.

    While I haven't read it yet, I expecting that Alistair McGraph's recently released biography on C S Lewis will definitely have careful scholarship and balanced approach with some interesting new insights. It's on my to-read list.

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  4. Couldn't agree more, Jenny, about the way the Bible portrays fallible human beings transformed by God! I will look for McGraph's on CS Lewis. I'll check out the other two also, but what I'm really interested in is biography; to see how writers get round the problems. In an autobio, it's the writer's own story and they can do what they like!

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  5. Agreed that the challenges of an autobiography are different to those of a biographer though I think it is just as refreshing to see an openness to presenting "a warts and all" approach.

    I just remembered another book on my to-read list that might interest you: William Booth and his Army by David Malcolm Bennett. When we met up at his daughter's book launch of The Heir we discussed just this point of not glossing over the subject's failures in writing biography.

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    1. OOh thanks for that lead, Jenny!

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