BIO Honors Gottlieb with Editorial Excellence Award

(Photo courtesy of Calvin Reid)

(Photo courtesy of Calvin Reid)

On December 3, more than 70 BIO members, editors, agents, and writers gathered at the New York Society Library to hear Robert Caro (left) pay tribute to Robert Gottlieb, the first winner of BIO’s Editorial Excellence Award.

Board member Will Swift introduced Caro, and after his tribute Gottlieb spoke for 35 minutes on biography and his decades-long collaboration with Caro.

Former BIO president James McGrath Morris said, “The evening was riveting and represented the kind of vital energy that attracts us to biography.” John Farrell added, “There is a sense one sometimes feels that, no matter what scene we are in at the moment, someone is having a better time somewhere else. But on Wednesday night, watching Robert Caro give the award to Robert Gottlieb, it was pretty clear to everyone there that no writers on the planet were having a finer time than we were.

Scott Saul Goes “Deep” with Richard Pryor

Saul dug deep into  Pryor's early years in Peoria, Illinois.

Saul dug deep into Pryor’s early years in Peoria, Illinois.

Scott Saul’s Becoming Richard Pryor appeared as the biography of another iconic African American comedian was stirring controversy, as TBC explores below. Saul’s book has been praised for its thorough examination of Pryor’s life, with Kirkus Reviews calling it “the place to start” for anyone curious about the comedian’s life.

Saul is a professor of English at Berkeley. His first book, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties, came out in 2003 and won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. TBC contacted Saul before his new book’s release; we were especially curious about the companion website he created for the book and how other biographers might learn from his experience with it.

What drew you to Pryor?
I can’t think of a deeper subject. How deep you are—that’s how deep Pryor will go with you.

When I was ten and growing up in the San Fernando Valley, I saw Silver Streak and identified with the Gene Wilder character, who needs Richard Pryor to jolt him out of his nebbishhood; I sensed that Pryor was taking me to another universe of knowledge and experience, giving me a new world view. Then, as a teenager, I listened to his comedy and was captivated by how he handled, without kid gloves, sensitive subjects like sex and race. In my twenties, I returned to his stand-up comedy and his Hollywood films from the 1970s—and was struck by his virtuosity as a performer and actor, the mix of subtlety and audacity. This was a comedian who had better chops than anyone, but who also was incredibly experimental—not unlike the jazz musicians who were at the center of my first book.

Then, in my thirties I was living and teaching in Berkeley, and noticed that Pryor’s “Berkeley interlude” was a big hole in the story his previous biographers had told. So, as a sort of pilot project for a larger biography, I decided to research the time he’d spent in Berkeley. And what I found blew my mind: There was a much more complex and fascinating story buried within the conventional wisdom about his life.

Did you face any special challenges dealing with his family?
Pryor led a fascinating but messy life, and he didn’t tie up all the loose ends when he died. His will made his last wife Jennifer the executor of his estate—a fact that rankled several of his children, who felt that they’d lost ownership of their father’s legacy. They took legal action against Jennifer, arguing that as his caretaker she had unfairly manipulated a dying man into marriage. Jennifer prevailed in court.

What this meant for me as a biographer looking to tell Pryor’s full story is that I needed to talk to people who basically refuse to talk with one another. Fortunately, I found that my approach to Pryor—which is more historical than journalistic—was well-received. Jennifer is, among other things, a descendant of the fiery abolitionist John Brown, and she liked the fact that I was bringing a historical depth to her husband’s story. Likewise his daughter Elizabeth is actually a professor of history at Smith College. She appreciated how I was delving through archives and setting her family’s story in the context of WWII, black life in the 1950s and so on.

What was it like writing about a person who touched on so many taboo topics and led such a sensational life?
I think every biographer has to struggle with questions of voice and tone. There were some earlier writers on Pryor who had adopted a sort of hopped-up tone that, I think, was their attempt to approximate the energy of Pryor’s stand-up. “Check out this wild and crazy guy!” they seemed to shout. I thought that such an approach wouldn’t work over the span of a 600-page book: readers would feel like I was getting in the way of the story. So I tried to make my tone as narrator more measured. I let Pryor, and the people around him, speak for themselves—and what they say, in their own words, stands out more clearly against the backdrop of the steadier tone of the narrator. I’m reminded of the advice I heard from a historian I admire: “You write not to shout, but to get your reader to shout.”

You’ve built a big digital companion to the book that curates over 200 documents related to Pryor’s formative years in Peoria, Illinois. What inspired you to create the website and what do you hope to accomplish with it? What led you to include primary sources?
There was no historical monograph on the history of Peoria, so I had to do a lot of spade work myself to reconstruct what it was like for a black boy, born in 1940, to grow up in the red light district of Peoria. It was research that was sometimes oriented around the story of his family (which ran a set of brothels and a tavern in that district) but also stretched out to encompass a larger set of issues, like the history of segregation and urban reform in the city.

After I had written the five chapters that trace Pryor from his birth to the moment, in his early twenties, when he leaves Peoria for New York City, I felt like I had, in effect, done the research for another book, too: a study of a so-called “typical” mid-sized, middle-American city (and here Peoria’s use in shorthand to stand for middle America was just too perfect) as it evolved from the 1930s to the 1960s, jolted by World War II, “cleaned up” during the 1950s, and shaken by the gathering Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

I didn’t want to write another book, but I did want to share my research—and get people to engage with the complexity of Richard Pryor’s story, and of the story of his hometown. To my mind, there’s no better way to get people to engage with complexity than to have them parse primary documents. For example: a reader might begin just by being curious about Richard Pryor’s school records. But if they look at the school records more closely, they’ll start to delve into how conventional schools, in the 1950s, handled children with unconventional talents. And they might then connect Pryor’s experience with the experience of other black kids in Peoria schools—kids who, in the 1960s, started protesting the limits of their educational environment.

With all the detail at the site, do you worry some people might go through it and feel they don’t have to buy the book? How do you establish that balance of too little/too much info? Or because the site focuses on Peoria years that is not a concern?
I’m not worried that the site “gives away the store” because it’s only a companion to the first section of the biography—which has five sections. And I think that many fans of Pryor come to the book most disposed to be interested in the other sections of the book—i.e., the story of how he became a revolutionary figure in stand-up comedy, or how he came to Hollywood and upended it.

In terms of sales, the website is a bit of an experiment, but my hunch (on the eve of my book’s publication) is that the website will give the book a longer life than it would otherwise have and will lead many more people to buy the book. Five years from now, HarperCollins will have long stopped promoting the book, but teachers in fields like US history, African American history, and urban studies might still have considerable use for it. It’s helping to keep Pryor alive in the culture.

Is the site basically done, or do you imagine that it’ll evolve over time?
Because of way the site is organized, it would be easy to upload more images and documents to it, so I imagine that it will expand in the future. If, say, one of Pryor’s relatives were to offer to share more of her family photos, I would be very happy to put them up, annotate them, and organize them on the site. Or if, say, the Peoria Public Library wanted to send me some material from their Jaycees collection (the Jaycees were a big part of the coalition fighting the city’s red light district), then I would love to curate that material on the site, too. All that said, I think that the archive is pretty extensive as it is!

The technical side: did you create the website and handle the tech issues? Did you pay for it yourself?
Creating a customized website like this one is pretty darn complicated and labor-intensive—and is necessarily collaborative because it involves so many skill sets: web design, web development and coding, the art of historical annotation and essay writing, cartography, even filmmaking (we made a four-minute film that’s mounted on the homepage and available on Youtube). I served as the “editor-publisher” and was finicky about the writing and design of the site, but the credit for the site rests with the enormously talented team that gave their all to build it.

All told, the website cost about $20,000, though that doesn’t include the time I invested in it. I started by putting up several thousand dollars from a research fund to pay a former student of mine to design a template. (Remarkably, it was the first site he ever designed; he’s insanely talented.) Then Stanford University’s Spatial History Project funded a summer of site-building and development. Then I engaged two Berkeley history PhDs, with considerable coding expertise, to bring the site to the next level.

Though $20K is a considerable amount of money, it compares very well to other, similar projects (i.e., our process of building the site was cheaper than most). And I think that now that “Richard Pryor’s Peoria” offers a model for this sort of site, other historians and biographers will have a much easier time generating a template—and perhaps getting outside funding—to do similar digital companions. I’m sure your readers would have a lot of great ideas. Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Emily Dickinson’s Amherst, Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia, Langston Hughes’s Harlem: there’s really no end to what could be done in this line.

Anything interesting you’d like to add about the research/writing process that other biographers might find useful or entertaining?
Writing a biography is a marathon, I think. I sometimes tired of writing my book, but I never tired of Richard Pryor as a subject. He remains electrifying—the ultimate uninsulated wire.

Cosby Biographer’s Omission Sparks Controversy

Old allegations that comedian Bill Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted more than a dozen women have filled the news in recent weeks—and brought unflattering attention to Cosby biographer Mark Whitaker.

In Cosby: His Life and Times, Whitaker, a seasoned journalist, wrote about Cosby’s extramarital affairs and other dark moments in his life, but he left out the rape allegations and the out-of-court settlement Cosby made in 2006 with Andrea Constand, one of the alleged victims who had sued Cosby the year before. Before the settlement, twelve other women were also prepared to testify that Cosby had either molested or raped them.

Several reporters had examined the allegations years before Whitaker’s book appeared, a fact that received increasing attention as journalists and reviewers wondered why Whitaker left them out of the book. In mid-November, defending himself to CNN. Whitaker said, “Basically, I knew that I was going to have to be very careful in what I said about his private life. I felt that way as a journalist and also for legal reasons.

“In the case of these other allegations, basically because there were no definitive court findings, no independent witnesses, it didn’t meet my standard for what I was going to put in the book.”

In September, just days before Cosby was published, Whitaker wrote an article for the Washington Post explaining how he came to get Cosby’s cooperation for the book. The comedian first rebuffed him, but about a year into Whitaker’s research Cosby had a change of heart and approached him, willing to cooperate. His representatives had already made clear that Cosby would not talk about the paternity suit he had faced or the murder of his son Ennis. But as Whitaker wrote, “Cosby himself imposed no other conditions, on me or on the dozens of people he encouraged to talk to me.”

With access to the comedian and his close friends, Whitaker wrote what he called “a book that put readers there, showing them how Cosby’s life and career unfolded in real time and letting them draw their own conclusions, rather than telling them what to think.” He added, “I was under no obligation, but when the book was in galleys, I sent copies to Cosby’s publicist and lawyer so they would know what was coming. Although there were things in it they weren’t entirely happy about, they didn’t ask for any changes, because they knew I had solid sourcing for everything I had written.”

Having a subject’s lawyer and publicist review galleys might have raised the eyebrows of other journalists and biographers, as Whitaker’s leaving out the rape allegations and Cosby’s settlement with Constand later did. USA Today’s Michael Wolff, writing shortly after the book’s publication, said, “Whitaker not only seems out to protect Cosby, but, further complicating the tale, to be threatened by him. Cosby is said to have made it clear to Whitaker and his publisher, Simon & Schuster, that he would sue on the slightest provocation.”

A BIO Member Responds
Biographer, journalism professor, and BIO member Steve Weinberg addressed Whitaker’s shortcomings in handling the issue in an article for Time. Weinberg wrote, in part, “It’s hard to consider Whitaker a reliable reporter considering what he has left out; his standards are not only unrealistic, but also unwise and irresponsible for a biographer who wants to present a complete picture of his subject.

“Biographers know that circumstantial evidence is as valid—and perhaps as necessary—for inclusion as direct evidence, as long as the circumstantial evidence accumulates at a certain level. Rarely do rapists assault their victims in front of witnesses. Is Whitaker suggesting that all biographers ignore detailed rape charges issued by women—ones who identify themselves, no less—against iconic, influential, wealthy men because nobody else was in the room?

“…. At minimum, Whitaker should have decided that the multiple allegations of sexual assault affected Cosby’s own life so deeply that they needed to be included in the book. Based on his evaluation of the evidence, Whitaker could have told readers that he doubted the allegations. Or he could have told readers that the allegations existed—an objective fact. Whatever Whitaker concluded about the evidence, he needed to tell readers how Cosby reacted, and why he might have reacted as he did. Instead, Whitaker participated in a biographical cover-up—a classic lie of omission. That is never an acceptable decision for the chronicler of somebody else’s life.”

As criticism of Whitaker mounted, he made this admission via Twitter on November 24: “I was wrong to not deal with the sexual assault charges against Cosby and pursue them more aggressively. I am following new developments and will address them at the appropriate time. If true the stories are shocking and horrible.”

Members React to Whitaker’s Book
After Steve Weinberg published his piece in Time, he shared it on the BIO Facebook page. Here are some member responses to the article and issues it raised.

Jeffrey Marks: I had to write about an abuse issue in my biography of Craig Rice. It’s not pretty or fun, but in order to have a full picture of the subject, you have to include the good with the bad….The fact that Cosby settled with one of the women could be presented as a fact by both a biographer and a journalist. That fact could have opened the door to a mention that other women have made similar complaints
Oline Eaton: How can you write the life without at least acknowledging that these allegations were a part of it?! Shocking…. I wondered about the difference between biographical ethics and journalistic ethics as well, but figured that the allegations would have an effect on the life so they’d need to be at least mentioned, even if Whitaker only listed them and said he couldn’t verify them…. There’s also a question of access to the subject here, no? Whitaker got 11 hours with Cosby. The video footage of Cosby’s strong-arming of the AP seems illuminating.
Carl Rollyson: I think he left it out because he wanted access to Cosby. I would not make such a deal.
Barbara Lehman Smith: Watching how Cosby tried to intimidate that AP reporter (which temporarily worked by the way) gives me an idea of how Cosby influenced Whitaker. But facts are facts (minimum: allegations made, suits settled) and Whitaker was a coward.

(TBC contacted Mark Whitaker’s publicist, who passed on our request to Whitaker for a comment, but never heard back before press time.)

“Bill Cosby Avoided Me for Years. Here’s What Finally Got Him to Call Me.”
“Missing Allegations in Cosby Biography Fuel a Lie of Omission”
“Saving Bill Crosby”

Gottlieb to Receive Inaugural BIO Editorial Excellence Award

Robert Gottlieb will receive the BIO Editorial Excellence Award...

Robert Gottlieb will receive the BIO Editorial Excellence Award…

…from his long-time associate Robert Caro

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On December 3, BIO will present its first Editorial Excellence Award to Robert Gottlieb. The award honors an editor who has made outstanding contributions to the field of biography. A former editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster and Knopf, Gottlieb has edited countless best-selling novels as well as modern classics of the biographer’s craft.

Robert Caro, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the many writers who has benefited from Gottlieb’s skills, will present the award and offer a tribute. The two men first worked together on Caro’s The Power Broker, about New York City’s “master builder,” Robert Moses. The book earned Caro his first Pulitzer, and 40 years after its publication, it is a staple of college reading lists for courses on city planning and journalism.

Editing that classic work was not always easy for the two men. Caro told TBC, “I have a bad temper, and although Bob denies it, so does he. While we were editing The Power Broker, one or the other of us was always jumping up and stalking out of the room to cool off. Now he, of course, had the tactical advantage over me because when we were working at Knopf, he, as president of the company, could leave and go to somebody’s else office and transact some business, but I had no place to go except the bathroom. I went to the bathroom a lot, as I recall.”

Despite that sometimes-contentious start, Caro and Gottlieb have continued their relationship as Caro chronicles the life of Lyndon Johnson in a multi-volume biography (he is currently working on the fifth and concluding book). Gottlieb told BIO member Kate Buford that before he got a first draft of The Power Broker, “I had no interest whatsoever in Robert Moses—until I started reading. By the time I’d read the first chapter, I had a consuming interest—in him and in Caro.” (You can read the complete interview, first published in TBC in April 2014, here).

For his part, Caro praises Gottlieb for going beyond considering only what might be newsworthy, as many editors do. Caro said, “I have always believed that for a biography—for any non-fiction work—to endure, the level of its prose has to be just as high as the level of the prose in a novel that endures. The writing is what matters. And with Gottlieb, I found an editor who was interested in that, too. When we’re working together, what matters—and it is all that matters—is what is on the page in front of us.”

Gottlieb, in an interview with The Paris Review, offered a humble of appraisal of what he does: “Editing is simply the application of the common sense of any good reader.”

Attendees of the December 3 award ceremony can expect to hear many more insights on both the editor’s and the biographer’s craft from these two respected figures. The event will be 6-8 p.m. at the New York Society Library, 53 East 79th Street, New York, NY 10075. Tickets are $45 and include drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Space is limited, so reserve early here.

Richard Holmes Explores the Value of “A Handshake across Time”

Richard Holmes

Holmes’s books have included a two-volume biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

By Dona Munker

In fifty years of writing biography, the innovative and prolific Richard Holmes has become known to his fellow practitioners as “a biographer’s biographer” for his reflections on the art and craft of biography (Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer and Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer). At the 2014 annual Leon Levy Biography Lecture in New York, Holmes shared some insights with a rapt audience.

Holmes was about 18 when he decided to hike through the Cèvennes in an attempt to retrace the route Robert Louis Stevenson had taken with his donkey Modestine in 1878. Showing the audience a picture of two pages in a lined spiral notebook, he explained how he recorded factual, objective observations on one page, and on the opposite his own responses—“the subjective story, the dream story, the inner story of my pursuit.” In this way, his research notes became a mirror of past (the scientific evidence of Stevenson’s journey) and present (the biographer’s emotional responses to the evidence he recorded).

Holmes now views traveling to places where the subject lived and worked as the “physical and metaphysical pursuit” of a life, and an indispensable tool for a biographer, especially a literary biographer. Trying to discover the source of “that hope and creativity” that engenders art, however, requires not only discernment but a continuous balancing of circumspection and emotional empathy. The interior or spiritual life of a subject, he said, (“whether religious or not”) is “hidden” and therefore “far more delicate and difficult of access” than other areas of existence (including, Holmes observed rather pointedly, a subject’s sex life).

To penetrate the interior reality and bring it alive for both biographer and reader, Holmes said, the biographer must have the courage to draw not only on objective evidence but also on the subjective feelings and intuition that arise out of the writer’s own empathy for a subject’s emotional experience. And there is no substitute, he said, for being there.

As an example, he described an incident from the five years he spent searching for the sources of Shelley’s poetry (Shelley: The Pursuit, 1974). Puzzled by the fact that in “Adonais,” Shelley, an avowed atheist, envisions “a kind of immortality” for the poet John Keats, he nevertheless discovered archival evidence that the poet had earlier tried to write poems about his young son William, who had died of a fever in Rome. Fragments of those attempts eventually found their way into “Adonais.” However, Holmes continued to find the poem hard to reconcile with Shelley’s professed atheism.

Then, while reviewing photographs he had taken of the garden of the house in Italy where Shelley had played with his son, Holmes noticed the concealed figure of a small boy watching him curiously from among the trees. Several seconds passed before the startled biographer realized that the boy was not the ghost of William Shelley but the son of the house’s current Italian owners, come to see what he was doing.

Those seconds of surrender to an illusion, he said, brought home to him how strongly he empathized with Shelley’s overwhelming loss and grief and deepened Holmes’s understanding of the poet’s longing to repair such a loss. “I accepted his atheism intellectually,” he said. “…[But] I also realized that at some level, Shelley believed in some sort of creative immortality, [a belief] that he could only express in his poetry.”

Holmes’s moments of disorientation, he said, also revealed the fine line a biographer always has to walk between detachment and empathy. “That momentary illusion taught me that…the biographer can become far more emotionally involved with the subject than he realizes. That is a good and necessary thing, so long as he can finally step back.”

Years of both writing biography and teaching it (Holmes was the founding director of an MA program in biography at the University of East Anglia) have led him to think of biography as a collective effort that reaches not only across disciplines but also across generations, cultures, and different ways of life. “I believe passionately in the biographical form and its power of truth-telling and transformation in lives,” he told his listeners. “I also believe that it addresses the meeting of the two great modes of human discovery…the meeting of imaginative literature and those who write it, and science and those who make it.”

 Holmes used this image to illustrate  biography's "handshake across time." (Used by permission of Richard Holmes)


Holmes used this image to illustrate biography’s “handshake across time.”
(Used by permission of Richard Holmes)

Quoting Sylvia Plath, who said, “the novel is an open hand, poetry a clenched fist,” Holmes projected another image from one of his notebooks (“Number 209”), this one showing a drawing of two hands clasped in a handshake. “Biography, then, is a handshake across time…an act of friendship, a way of keeping the biographer’s notebook open on both sides of that endless question about the mysteriousness of life. What was this human life really like, and what does it mean to us now? In this sense, biography is not merely a mode of historical inquiry. It is an act of imaginative faith.”

To see a video of Holmes’s lecture, go here.

Dona Munker, co-author of Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem Through the Islamic Revolution, is currently at work on a book about the twentieth-century American poet, suffragist, and free-lover Sara Bard Field. Some of her subjective responses to Richard Holmes’s lecture can be read on “Stalking the Elephant,” a blog about writing biography

Rich Variety of Biographies Highlight Fall Season

By James McGrath Morris
From the twerks of Miley Cyrus to the typography of Giambattista Bodoni, from the humor of Bill Cosby to the antics of Charlie Chaplin, from the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower to the rule of Joseph Stalin, the more than 100 biographies coming to bookstores this fall run the gamut of possibilities. While biography, like other segments of publishing, is navigating rough waters, writers keep producing a remarkably rich selection of works.

As TBC does twice a year, here is a discursive look at what is coming. A complete list is available here.

The first books to resonate with readers this fall are two September titles: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, by Karen Abbott (Harper) and Tennessee Williams: Made Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr (Norton). Also getting some notice is The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters by Andrew McConnell Stott (Pegasus). One of the cast members of this prosopography is Mary Shelley, who will be the subject of Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon, coming out in February (Random House).

As usual, as the fall gets underway, political figures will be featured in a large share of the biographies. Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns have put together The Roosevelts: An Intimate History as a tie-in to the seven-part documentary airing on PBS this fall, which follows the Roosevelts for more than a century, from Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962. Continue Reading…

Sex, Lies, and (No) Audiotape

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It’s rare when biographies and biographers make the front page of a national magazine — in this case it’s the September 5, 2014 issue of Newsweek. But don’t rush to celebrate just yet.  In a lengthy piece for the magazine, reporter David Cay Johnson  debunks the work of celebrity biographer C. David Heymann — author of juicy tell-alls on Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and Liz Taylor, to name a few — finding that much of Heymann’s research turned out to be vapor trails.  It’s a cautionary tale of a “serial fabulist” and definitely worth a read.

 

Picture of a Life: Philip Short Explores the Biographer’s Craft

Philip Short

As a newspaper journalist and BBC correspondent, Short reported from Moscow, China, and Washington D.C.

More than four decades ago, while working as a freelance journalist in Malawi, Philip Short received a letter from Penguin: Would he be interested in writing a biography of Malawian president Hastings Banda, for the publisher’s series Political Giants of the 20th Century? Short readily agreed, adding now, “I suspect they had no idea that I was then 23 years old!”

Since that auspicious start, Short has a made his mark writing biographies of world leaders. His most recent book, Mitterand: A Study in Ambiguity, was published in the UK last fall and in April in the United States. With all his biographies, and with his next project on Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Short has chosen to focus on figures outside the Anglo-American sphere. TBC interviewed Short to get his perspective on what challenges that poses, and his general views of the craft of biography.
For Short, researching and writing the life story of foreign figures came out of his experience working as a reporter for the BBC. He said of his time as a journalist, “What fired me was getting to grips with another culture, with other ways of thinking, and of conveying to people at home what I thought of as ‘a particle of truth’ about a different society, which was not the same as the truth that most of my compatriots understood. That experience… has certainly influenced my approach to biography.”
Short added that he admires biographers who can write about their own country’s leaders, such as Charles Moore on Margaret Thatcher and Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson. “I wouldn’t do it myself,” he said. “When writer, subject, and readers are all from the same country, it’s a totally different exercise. The dimension of foreignness—of otherness—is missing.”
With two of his books—Mao: A Life and Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare—Short not only dealt with foreign leaders, but also ones vilified for their atrocious acts. Does dealing with such horrific subjects require any special distancing or raise other concerns? First, for Short, “writing about terrible things…is never fun.” But he also feels biographers and others need to closely examine the terms used to describe such men as Mao and Pol Pot and their actions. For instance, he backs away from the expression mass murderer, because “the term ‘murder’ is reserved for deliberate voluntary killing. In both China and Cambodia, most of those who died perished from starvation (the Great Leap Forward in China: upwards of 30 million dead) or starvation, overwork, and illness (Cambodia).

Continue Reading…