Against Biography: An Initial Position

My taxidermy book uses its central historical figure the way most people are used: for someone else’s personal gain. In this case, my own. What the life of Carl Akeley, the oft-called Father of Modern Taxidermy, got me was both an ongoing narrative and also a kind of structural cubby closet in which I could stow all the present-day taxidermy stuff I was way more interested in thinking about.

Despite my using Akeley (or more precisely, as a kind of toll or penance for using him), I had the responsibility to turn the events of his life into a story readers could be engaged in. It was work I sometimes came to hate. The problem, it seemed to me, was that I had no primary source. Akeley had been dead for almost eighty years when I started writing about him, and even his own (ghostwritten) memoirs weren’t going to give me the intimate details I wanted to turn an actual person who lived into an interesting nonfictional character.

In other words, the form of nonfiction I chose dictated that I recreate a life on the page as fully as that life was inside a body. That this problem provided a nice echo of the one every taxidermist has whenever he tries to mount a lifelike animal skin didn’t much assuage the unease I felt while doing it.

I’ve seen a number of biopics lately—The Aviator, The Iron Lady, and J. Edgar since December—and have given each one the thumbs down (which if I recall correctly is a movie-critique method Roger Ebert owns the trademark to). Is it the imposition of narrative on life? The artifice of this? It’s a feeling I believe is tied to my unease at fitting Akeley’s life into a book. But there’s something else going on. Another form of artifice.

It’s like every time I see a biopic I assume I’m being lied to, that I have to do all this tiring Didionic work to get the true and realer story above the old dumb story someone’s trying to assert as the truth. Or even harder: to get the actual person from the mythic figure we’ve all already come to know. Compare these portrayals (of Hawkes, Thatcher, and Hoover…but any biopic portrayal works) with Kushner’s use (again, that verb) of Roy Cohn in his fictional Angels in America. Here was a new Roy Cohn, but not a false one. I enjoy Kushner’s Cohn and I trust him. I trust more of what I’m told about a real person from history when they are researched and then reinterpreted through fiction than when they are researched and presented in a biopic.

Why is this? I think it has something to do with focus. No person should be cast as the star of his own story. It is an indulgence we all are victims of, and it’s the biggest lie nonfiction, biography, and biopics try to pass on us. Novelists (slash playwrights), somehow, have learned better to spread POV around a little, and to understand secondary characters not as accessories to a protagonist but as fellow travelers in a narrative—and more so as keys to that protag’s essential character.

I’ll go a little further about the lies of biography versus the honesty of fiction. There seems to be a misunderstood responsibility among biographers, one re accuracy. A successful biography seeks either to bring the audience back to the time of the life of its figure, or to represent its figure and his/her time to a contemporary audience. And I don’t know that this is possible. Or no: I know time travel’s not possible.

We (and by this I’m not sure if I mean writers/artists/producers or readers/audience/consumers) have to subjugate our relationship with the past to the needs of the present. It’s not just our privilege as the living to reinvent and recast the dead to suit our present-day understandings of them. It’s our duty to do so. These people, yes, existed, but those people are gone. What remains is what we choose to make of them. If the portrayal is too off, too wrong for the public’s tastes, it’ll get rejected or forgotten. But a reinvention that hits a chord—the sort of thing that really good fiction does—that’s something more important than documented evidence of the life once lived.

Here’s yet another way of saying that fiction gets right what nonfiction tends often to get wrong. I mean, cf. Citizen Kane, biographers!

I recently picked up Biography: A Very Short Introduction by Hermione Lee, who wrote big-time Cather, Woolf, and Wharton biographies. It’s clear this is a book I should try to devour quickly this week (it’s Spring Break). I’ll do so and report back. I’m ready for my position on this matter to get shifted.

4 thoughts on “Against Biography: An Initial Position”

  1. Good stuff. I was relieved in a sense when I wrote about Jerry Lee Lewis and AC/DC knowing that they’d never talk to me, that I could, via documents and other texts, recreate them, in a sense. The Fleshtones situation was tougher; I became friends with these men, whom I gave an opportunity to fact-check their own lives, and some of what they asked me to remove went against personas they once lived but don’t anymore. So “accuracy” blurred there.

  2. I don’t understand why you consider “biopics” to be somehow separate from fiction. The Aviator, while based on the life of a real person, is scripted by a writer and filled with mostly imagined scenes. If you think you’re being “lied to” by the movie, you are. In the same way Kushner lies about Roy Cohn or that James Ellroy lies about J. Edgar Hoover.

    A “biopic” being marketed to the public for its roots in history doesn’t make it any less fictional than a historical novel or play. Yet people seem to think that movies have a greater responsibility to the truth.

  3. Oh, on another note, one reason to give The Aviator another chance is that it does a better job than anything else I’ve seen or read of depicting what it’s like to have an OCD-based anxiety attack. There are a few moments that do it well, but I’m thinking specifically of the scene when Hughes is in a meeting about a new plane, and he suddenly becomes unable to concentrate because one of the other guys has a spot on his suit.

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