Detailed conference information is available here.
A distinguished panel of judges made up of members of Biographers International Organization (BIO) has selected ten nominees for the 2015 Plutarch Award. The Plutarch is the only international literary award presented to biography, by biographers.
Following the announcement of the ten nominees, BIO’s Plutarch Committee will next narrow the list to four finalists. BIO members around the world will vote for the winning biography from among these four distinguished books, honoring a writer who has achieved distinction in the art of biography.
This year’s ten nominees, in alphabetical order by title, are:
- Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell (Viking)
- Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles (Knopf)
- Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal by Jay Parini (Doubleday)
- Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times by Anne Heller (New Harvest)
- Irrepressible: A Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham by Emily Bingham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
- Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage, by Betty Boyd Caroli (Simon & Schuster)
- The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon 1952-1961,
by Irwin F. Gellman (Yale)
- Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter, by Cathy Curtis (Oxford)
- Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll, by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown)
- Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva,
by Rosemary Sullivan (Harper)
BIO first presented the Plutarch Award in 2013. Previous winners, in chronological order, are:
- Robert Caro, The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
- Linda Leavell, Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore
- Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life.
You can find more information about the award and past nominees here.
The BIO Plutarch Award Committee members for 2016 are:
Douglas Brinkley, Chair
Deirdre A. David
John Aloysius Farrell
The winning biography will be announced at the 7th Annual BIO Conference on Saturday, June 4, in Richmond, Virginia.
Both would-be authors and seasoned writers alike might have looked at a book jacket and wondered if the blurbs on the back really make a difference in propelling sales. And if they have never given or sought out a blurb, they may have wondered how the process works. To some writers, it’s not a pretty sight.
Writing for The Millions in 2011, novelist Bill Morris offered these descriptions of blurbing: “suspect,” “vaguely sleazy,” and “a sweaty little orgy of incest.” In the years since, other writers have expressed their displeasure with giving and asking for blurbs. Some authors have even suggested the process is corrupt, with agents writing blurbs and asking famous authors to put their names to the canned praise. Other writers are increasingly questioning the efficacy of blurbs in the age of social media, when readers are more apt to follow the recommendations of friends or the masses at sites like Goodreads. Still, blurbing does not seem to be going away, so BIO turned to several members and found some recent articles on blurbs to help authors navigate the blurbing maze.
(A side note: By most accounts, the word blurb was coined by humorist Gelett Burgess in his 1907 book Are You a Bromide? Burgess created a character he called Miss Belinda Blurb, who sang the praises of the book on the cover. But the practice of garnering quotes from other authors to adorn one’s book jacket predates Miss Blurb’s debut.)
How important are blurbs? BIO board member Will Swift said, “Blurbs are important in that they encourage newspapers, bloggers, and magazines to review the book. These reviews help drive sales. They may not be as important to book buyers, but they don’t hurt.” BIO member Irv Gellman had a slightly different take, saying, “If the book hits well, [blurbs] can probably help you. If the book doesn’t hit, it probably doesn’t matter.” Another BIO board member, Kate Buford, noted that since some people find the blurbing process “dubious,” blurbs might not be too helpful for a hardcover book. But with a paperback edition, “blurbs from actual reviews can be used and are more effective.”
Part of the blurbing process is knowing who to approach. Publishers, editors, and agents will sometimes draw up a list of possible blurbers, especially if those authors also have ties to them. Writers often reach out to friends first, especially if they have expertise in the book’s topic. Often, with this arrangement there is an expectation, if not explicit statement, of reciprocity. Moving outside that circle, Gellman recommends finding someone who is nationally or internationally known or an expert in the field, though if the expert is unknown, his or her blurb might not be as valuable. And don’t be afraid to aim for the stars with your requests. For his The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952–1961, Gellman asked for and got a blurb from former Secretary of State George Shultz, even though Gellman figured he had “a snowball’s chance in hell” of landing him.
For his Pat and Dick: The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage, Swift contacted a highly regarded Nixon expert. Impressed with Swift’s research, the expert encouraged three important historians and biographers to read and blurb Swift’s book. Making contacts with experts is key, Buford said, for starting the blurbing process. “You should have created a network of experts in your field as you researched the book. If the book’s subject is likely to directly appeal to an expert you don’t know, it can work to ask a colleague to initiate the outreach to that expert.”
Swift said it can also be valuable to contact another biographer who has recently published on the subject. “Their quote, name, and new book title on the back of your book will serve as publicity for their own work. When I wrote my Roosevelt book, I contacted Jon Meacham’s assistant and sent her the galley. As he had just published Franklin and Winston, he was willing to read and blurb mine.”
For biographers writing about a subject from a different racial or ethnic background or of the opposite gender, BIO board member James McGrath Morris sees a special value in the right blurbs. He said comments from readers who share the subject’s background “can act like the Seal of Good Housekeeping.”
On the Other Side of the Blurb
What are the expectations of the author asked to write a blurb? It’s commonly accepted that not all blurbers read all of the books they praise. Like reviewers or interviewers, some only read the introduction, epilogue, and selections from the text. Both Buford and Gellman said they would not blurb a book they had not read all the way through. Gellman said, “If someone says they want a blurb from me, I take it very seriously.” Gellman’s criteria for deciding which books to blurb include how well he knows the topic and how meticulous the author is in his or her research. And Swift said that while some authors blurb as a favor, he would never blurb a book if he didn’t think it was any good.
Some blurbers, however, are less scrupulous about the blurbing process. In a 2015 piece for the Guardian, novelist Nathan Filer wrote that he knew of at least one instance in which a blurb was taken verbatim from the letter the publisher sent out to prospective blurbers, which of course praised the book. And some authors are notorious blurbers who seemingly never turn down a request. A recent NPR story said Gary Shteyngart has done more than 150, and “there’s even a Tumblr devoted to some of his more notable snippets.”
Whether the request comes from a friend or arrives unsolicited from an unknown writer, potential blurbers might be asked for a comment and not feel comfortable giving one. What’s the polite way to decline to blurb? Swift said, “You tell the author that you are swamped with finishing your book and don’t have the time to read thoroughly another work, which you would have to do before blurbing it.” Buford’s advice is similar: “Just plead a busy schedule, deadline, whatever, and say you so wish you could. Wish the author luck.”
Examples from the Trenches
One of the panels at the 2014 BIO conference looked at some of the issues around blurbs. Buford, who moderated that panel, passed on advice from agent Susan Rabiner on what makes a good blurb: “A good blurb communicates a good read, counterintuitive insights, and comes from major players in the field.” Rabiner then offered several examples of actual blurbs that she thought demonstrated those traits. Here are two:
The Guynd: A Scottish Journal. “Belinda Rathbone’s account of her romance with a four-hundred-year-old Scottish country estate is as sharp-eyed as a field guide, as nuanced as an anthropological study, as gripping as a book of wilderness exploration, and as bittersweet as a classic love story.”—George Howe Colt, author of The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer House.
“With searing, vivid candor and unflinching courage, journalist Keith Richburg dares to discard preconceived notions about Africa to learn and convey a larger truth about humanity. His personal observations demolish the confining categories of race and class that imprison us all. Out of America is a brilliant, electrifying story of one man’s hard-won liberation.”—John Hockenberry, NBC News, author of Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence.
A good blurb, Morris pointed out, doesn’t have to go just on a book jacket. He recounted how he and his publisher used blurbs for The Rose Man of Sing Sing. When the book was nearing publication, Morris said, “My publisher sent single-stemmed roses to certain reviewers with a single blurb, much like a note, attached to the flower. It made a large difference in the press coverage of the book.”
Blurbs can also make a difference with book buyers, or at least with one of them. Jake Cumsky-Whitlock is the head book buyer at Kramerbooks, a Washington, DC, bookstore. He told NPR, “If I haven’t heard of the author writing the book, but it comes with the imprimatur of a reputable writer or someone I respect, that will make a big difference.”
For serial blurber Gary Shteyngart, he likes to think that one of his comments may help sell a book. “My job is to help out a little bit,” he said. But like others involved in the process, he can’t say what effect blurbs really have. His suggestion for improving the process? “If we could all enter a memorandum of not blurbing anyone else, I think it would be easier for us.”
BIO’s Conference Site Committee and Conference Planning Committee are happy to report that the 2016 BIO Conference will be held in Richmond, Virginia, on June 3–5. “We’re thrilled to be coming to downtown Richmond, one of the most historic, vibrant, and culturally happening cities in the nation.” BIO President Brian Jay Jones said. “And the folks in Richmond are even more thrilled to have us.”
Working closely with Richmond Region Tourism’s Convention Services Department, the Site Committee chose the first-class business hotel, the Richmond Marriott, for Saturday’s conference events. The conference begins on Saturday morning with the plenary session and breakfast, followed by the conference panels and other events, and ends with the reception and the announcement of the Plutarch Award winner.. The day includes a luncheon featuring the keynote address by the 2016 BIO Award winner (stay tuned).
The Friday evening reception will take place at the Library of Virginia on Broad Street, just three blocks from the Marriott—and a stone’s throw from the Thomas Jefferson-designed (and recently renovated) Virginia State Capitol. The Library of Virginia is a state-of-the-art facility built in 1997 that houses 400 years of Virginia history—a combination of Virginia’s Library of Congress and National Archives. The LVA Special Collections Department is planning to display some of the library’s treasures at the Friday night reception.
On Friday afternoon, conference attendees may take part in three specially designed archival tours: at the Library of Virginia; at the historic and beautiful Hollywood Cemetery, the final resting place of two American presidents, six Virginia governors, two Supreme Court justices, and twenty-two Confederate generals; and the newly renovated and expanded Virginia Historical Society, the fourth-oldest state historical society with an extensive collection of materials of interest to biographers.
New this year: A Sunday late-morning Biography Fest brunch at Richmond’s Hardywood Park Craft Brewery not far from downtown. On tap—aside from award-winning craft beers—will be short presentations by BIO members with books in print and a book-signing hosted by a Richmond independent bookseller. The Biography Fest will be free and open to the public.
Richmond, which is about a two-hour drive south of Washington, DC, and within a day’s drive of half the US population, is easy to get to by plane, train, bus, or car. Richmond International Airport, only fifteen minutes from downtown, offers nearly two dozen non-stop domestic flights from seven major airlines. Richmond’s Amtrak station and the Greyhound/Trailways station are both located downtown.
Excellent and eclectic restaurants abound in and around downtown Richmond. For a rundown on some of the newest, go to this recent article in Bon Appetit. In addition, BIO’s Dean King, who lives in Richmond, wrote an informative article on the city.
BIO members will find two terrific independent bookstores close to downtown:Fountain Bookstore in the Shockoe Slip Historic District, and Chop Suey Books (which will co-host the Sunday Biography Fest) in Carytown adjacent to Richmond’s Museum District, which features the world-class Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
“I would strongly suggest that folks take advantage of the great conference room rate at the Marriott, just $139 a night for a single or double, and come to town early to take in the history and culture in Richmond, as well as the Friday BIO tours and reception,” Jones said. He added that the Site Committee is working with several other top Richmond hotels on special rates for BIO conference attendees.
After the Planning Committee nails down the panels, panelists, speakers, and special guests, we’ll provide a run down in coming months’ The Biographer’s Craft.
Marc Leepson is BIO’s treasurer. His most recent book was What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life.
About 150 people from the publishing and cultural worlds of New York City turned out on November 4 to honor Jonathan Segal, winner of BIO’s second annual Editorial Excellence Award, and to hear some of the many biographers he’s worked with extol his dedication to his writers and the books they create.
BIO board member Will Swift acted as MC for the evening, and he began by noting the “extraordinary loyalty” Segal engenders in his writers. That loyalty is reflected in part by how long writers choose to stay with him. Panelists Paul Hendrickson, Eric Lax, and T. J. Stiles, along with moderator Kate Buford, have almost a century of combined experience working with Segal.
Before the panelists sung Segal’s praises, they addressed the issue, “How Do Great Biographies Get Made, and Why Do They Matter?” Buford began by asking the writers how they get their ideas. Stiles said he looks for strong stories that address some moral question of right and wrong. His subjects tend to be morally compromised in some way. Lax is drawn to people whose lives pose questions—questions he’s compelled to find answers to. He said the subject has to be someone “you’re willing to live with for the time it takes to do that.” Lax, whose subjects have included Woody Allen, also talked about the difference of writing about living and dead subjects. Since the former’s life is still unfolding, “You can be much more surprised by the living person than the dead person.”
For the process of writing, Hendrickson saw it as an act of discovery: “Where a book starts out is not where a book is going to end up.” Biographers need to be willing to follow where the story they uncover takes them, he said.
Of course, that process depends on what kinds of sources the biographer uncovers. While writing about Jesse James, Stiles had no diaries, no internal sources, to work with. For that kind of book, putting the subject in a historical context provided some of the plot. Writing about Cornelius Vanderbilt, many of Stiles’s sources stressed the subject’s business dealings, so that shaped the book. Stiles said, “Make a virtue out of what your material is.”
The panelists also examined the role of morality in capturing a persona. “Part of what moves me forward is trying to understand the underlying morality [of a subject],” Hendrickson said. Lax said one of his goals is to try to understand the person underneath the persona, their values and what drove them to live the life they did—“the intangible things that make a person a person.” The writer’s own sense of morality factors in, too. Stiles said writers should treat their subjects with “simple decency” and “honor the three dimensional humanity” even with subjects who commit bad acts.
The panelists spent time discussing their lengthy relationships with Segal and what makes him such a great editor. Buford recounted Segal’s exhortation to “think harder” and to control tangents—bring the story back to the subject. Hendrickson described Segal’s role in helping him find the focus for his book on the civil rights era, Sons of Mississippi. Hendrickson also praised Segal for his patience and letting the author work at his own deliberate pace.
Segal doesn’t want to just help produce a book that will sell; he wants his authors to be better writers. Segal relies on an intuition that tells him something is wrong. To solve it, Stiles said, “He doesn’t tell me what I had to do, but where I had to do it.” Lax had a similar view: Segal wants to help authors produce the best book they can write.
The Editorial Excellence Award
As he introduced Carl Bernstein, who gave Segal his award, Swift condensed the thrust of the panelists’ comments into a simple observation: Segal “loves all authors.” Bernstein then described his relationship with Segal as the two of them worked on Bernstein’s biography of Hillary Clinton. Segal, with a background in journalism, knew the story was still unfolding, and he didn’t hector his author to speed up the writing process. Bernstein came to see that “Jon is interested, above all, in the truth. And the book isn’t there until he thinks you’ve reached the truth.”
Bernstein commented on the collaborative nature of working with Segal. He encourages authors to dig deeper, and then helps shapes the writing, but in the end, “it’s still your work, but you know it is your work that has come from a place you couldn’t have reached on your own.”
Accepting his award, Segal said he was deeply touched and humbled. He traced his career in publishing, starting as a journalist at the New York Times. He recounted reviewing a children’s book for his first assignment, and for another story, approving the headline “Man Kills Self, Then Wife.” An editor at the paper suggested, “The quality of your writing is such that you might want to try editing.” That comment set Segal off on the path that led him to touch the careers and lives of many biographers. The writers, he added, have enriched his life as well.
The evening’s event was coordinated by BIO board members Kate Buford, Gayle Feldman, Anne Heller, and Will Swift, and co-sponsored by the New York Society Library. A video of the complete ceremony is available on the library’s website.
Jonathan Segal received the second annual BIO Editorial Excellence Award on November 4 at an event titled “How Great Biographies Get Made and Why They Matter.” Carl Bernstein presented Segal with the award, and the evening featured a panel discussion with several biographers who have worked with Segal. TBC will present highlights of that discussion and Segal and Bernstein’s remarks in the December issue. The event was co-sponsored by the New York Society Library.
A video of the evening is available here.
By Dona Munker
Whose life is valuable enough to deserve a biography? According to the attendees of an all-day conference on October 2 at the City of New York Graduate Center the answer was, “Any life has the potential to be a biography.” The event celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Women Writing Women’s Lives Seminar, an ongoing independent discussion group of about seventy women journalists, independent writers, and academic scholars.
The WWWL website says the seminar’s official mission is finding “new ways of looking at and presenting women’s stories” and, ultimately, to influence the way those stories are written. Keynote speaker and co-founder Deirdre Bair recalled that the group came into existence almost by accident. In October 1990, Bair, who had just published a landmark study of Simone de Beauvoir, and the late Carolyn Heilbrun, who was working on a biography of Gloria Steinem, invited a small number of feminist biographers to meet informally to talk about their projects. But instead of the ten or twelve friends they had invited, more than fifty people showed up. Stunned, the two organizers listened as one woman after another poured out her concerns about the obstacles involved in researching and writing the lives of women—including the need to find “the courage to think that women’s lives, on their own and without any attachment to men, were important and interesting enough to deserve being put into print.”
Changing Attitudes, Persistent Problems
Before the 1970s, publishers showed scant interest in serious biographies of women, unless the women were queens, female entertainers, or recognizable public or literary figures, such as Helen Keller or Emily Dickinson. By and large, it was felt that women who were not already well known belonged in the biographical limelight only as wives, mistresses, or muses of “great men.”
As the impact of the women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s made itself felt, however, that situation slowly began to change, and in the decades that followed, market-conscious publishers recognized that there was an audience for books about little-known women who overcame obstacles and achieved remarkable things in their own right.
Biographers of women nevertheless face hurdles that biographers of male subjects are less likely to encounter. Carla Peterson, a historian who has written about the men and women of her prominent nineteenth-century New York African-American family, had to contend with the fact that women, far more often than men, have left little or no trace on the historical record because of their traditional reluctance to expose themselves, either by word or by deed, to public scrutiny.
A self-imposed silence can also be produced by a sense of educational inadequacy—even when the subject has led a exceptionally public life. Sallie Bingham began looking into the life of tobacco heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke and found that Duke, who was raised to be a fin-de-siècle socialite, considered herself so ignorant that she refused to write letters, forcing Bingham to reconstruct her personality from correspondence written to her rather than by her.
Women can also vanish into the historic ether when family members or heirs, either out of embarrassment or a conviction that their grandmother’s letters are of no interest or value to posterity, lose, discard, or sell off papers left by female relatives. Betty Boyd Caroli, whose biography of Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson was published last month, found herself forced to “work by hunches” about Lady Bird’s connection with her mother because of what she described as an “almost utter absence of information” about this critical relationship in her subject’s life. Still, sometimes a biographer gets lucky. Ruth Franklin, who is working on a biography of the writer Shirley Jackson, rescued a box of her subject’s letters from an old filing cabinet just before the cabinet was to be auctioned off in the estate sale.
Even when a woman’s papers end up in an archival collection that bears her name, they may remain uncatalogued, rendering them effectively useless to researchers. Furthermore, if the collection is named for a male relative, a woman subject’s documents may be subsumed to his and effectively “lost.” Franklin, for instance, discovered that many of Shirley Jackson’s letters had been catalogued under the name of her husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, making them difficult to find.
Extending Biography’s Reach
The famous phrase “The personal is political” has its counterpart in feminist biography, where it is a given that the private and the public are inseparably connected. This emphasis on private lives and personal relationships has extended contemporary biographers’ ability to explore the complex interworkings of individuals, both with each other and with society. As an example, Diane Jacobs pointed out that her most recent book, Dear Abigail, a study of Abigail Adams and her two sisters, depicts “a private nation,” adding the personal to the political. “I didn’t want to write just another biography of John Adams,” she explained, noting that the psychological and social issues that emerge in the book—the nature of sisterhood, the meaning of women’s friendships in a male-dominated society—would not have emerged from a traditional biography of a man.
Do publishers still care if no one has heard of the subject? Well, yes. Even so, both Bair and Alix Kates Shulman agreed that the last twenty-five years have seen a significant shift of attitude toward women—and men—subjects who aren’t household names. “The subject,” said Shulman, a novelist as well as a biographer, “now counts less than the quality of the writing.” Bair said that by holding the biographer to a high standard of both writing and scholarship, feminist biography has succeeded in showing “that any life is an appropriate subject for exploration in the genres of biography, history, and memoir.”
It has also raised the bar for biographers as narrators. Nowadays, as Bair noted, “the biographer has to be able to write a page-turner and yet refuse to relinquish truth and authenticity.” Given the obstaclces to unearthing and depicting the complexities of women’s experience, that task can sometimes seem daunting. Nevertheless, said Bair, “We have an obligation to find the answers to our questions, and to never stop trying to find ‘the truth.’”
A video of the panel discussions will be available soon; the link will be posted on the Women Writing Women’s Lives Website and in a future issue of TBC.
Dona Munker is the writer and coauthor of Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem through the Islamic Revolution. She is working on a book about Sara Bard Field, a twentieth-century suffragist, poet, and “free-lover.” Her reflections, as well as an expanded version of this article, are available on her blog, “Stalking the Elephant.”