Conference Panel Offers Look at How to Choose Subjects

In the first of several previews of panels offered at the Seventh Annual BIO Conference, moderator James Atlas takes a look at some of his panelists’ views on their topic, “Choosing a Subject.”

 

Maybe another way to look at this question is to ask: Do biographers actually choose their subjects at all? Do they have agency over the process of determining how they will spend the next five or ten or—in the famous case of Robert Caro, the biographer of LBJ—forty years of their lives as they immerse themselves in a life that will inevitably remain unknown once their labors are done? Or do our subjects choose us? I pose this possibility not in some mystical spirit, but in a practical sense. The subject is there, signaling to the prospective biographer that he is available, if only, as in the case of the dead, in a subliminal sense—the biographer in collusion with his own unconscious.

For Dan Max, the biographer of David Foster Wallace, the chosen subject wasn’t chosen by him, but by his editor at The New Yorker, David Remnick, who suggested he write a piece on Wallace for the magazine. “Pretty soon I found myself in the presence of the most amazing, not just writer but mind, that I had ever met,” Max recalls. “Wallace’s speed-of-thought take on the world had me hooked. I fell in love. And one of the first things I learned was that his despair was tightly linked to his wish to be a great writer. Who, as a writer, isn’t drawn to that particular accident site?”

Two words leap out here: I learned. It’s that invigorating experience that motivates us—no, inspires us—to go deeper into our subjects, to unlock their secrets and give a narrative order to their lives. But we have to be open, to recognize opportunity when it’s there. Blake Bailey is now at work on the authorized biography of Philip Roth, an assignment he feels lucky to have gotten. As Bailey recounts the genesis of this arrangement, a fellow biographer [the present writer, hereafter known as “I”] happened to mention to him over breakfast at Sarabeth’s on the Upper West Side of New York (I strongly recommend the challah French toast) that Roth and his appointed biographer, Ross Miller, had parted ways. Bailey suggested that I would be an ideal candidate for the job, upon which, in Bailey’s fanciful recollection, I “recoiled as if I’d tossed a cobra at his foot.”

If so, it was less out of fear than out of a sense that, as the biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, I had traversed the territory of the Jewish-American writer, inexhaustibly rich but by now rather familiar; Blake was more versatile, and required only a large canvas. (Among his previous subjects was John Cheever.) “Whereupon, for my part,” he wrote when I asked him about the sequence of events, “I made a mental note to write a letter to PR as soon as I returned to Virginia [he teaches at William & Mary], and the rest is history.”

For Stacy Schiff, as for Max and Bailey, the biographer is less the instigating force than a Ouija board through which the spirit dictates: “It isn’t so much that your subject chooses you as that you express some mild curiosity about her life and she retaliates by infiltrating yours.” Schiff, too, sees the biographer as a passive figure, the empty vessel for a subject—any subject—so charismatic and seductive that he demands to be written about: “A door prize to anyone who can find the connection among my subjects; I can’t, aside from a stubborn unwillingness to repeat myself.” I doubt a prize will be awarded: she has written biographies of Antoine de Saint-Exupery; Nabokov’s wife Vera; Ben Franklin and Cleopatra. Her most recent book, The Witches, isn’t a biography at all, but a work of history and sociology.

Biographers face multiple choices when they set out in quest of a new subject. We can choose not to choose; we can go in search of new subjects unlike the ones we’ve written about before; or we can prepare ourselves for “choosing” by going through life in a state of receptivity, until we find the subject that is uniquely ours. This is how writers of all kinds, not just biographers, have always worked. The success rate has been high.

James Atlas is the author of Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet and Bellow: A Biography.

Biographers Explore Points of View

By Deirdre David

Whether strolling down St. Marks Place, wrestling with the many lives of Orson Welles, or wondering where Virginia Woolf got her clothes, the biographer must inevitably confront the vexing question of perspective: Where do you stand in relation to your subject, whether it’s a street, a cinematic genius, a brilliant novelist, or indeed yourself? At the Leon Levy Biography Conference, held on March 8 and organized around the theme of “Point of View,” an impressive roster of speakers engaged this question as they discussed their perspective on particular places and particular people.

In the day’s first panel dealing with “Place and Displacement: Looking Homeward,” Ada Calhoun, the author of St. Marks is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street, focused on the street where she grew up and its transformation from a hippie mecca to a weekend gathering place for Asian teenagers. Daniel Menaker, who edited fiction at The New Yorker for many years before becoming editor-in-chief of Random House, discussed his early life in the West Village, a “childhood Eden” shattered by the death of his brother from a staph infection. As he explicated the title of his recently published memoir, My Mistake, Menaker spoke about the connection, as he sees it, between comedy and sadness, about how humor gives us a point of view from which to deal with tragedy. For Margo Jefferson, the place of ambiguous belonging was her Chicago home, where she parsed the line between affiliation with “our people” and her family’s belief they were the “best”. Her point of view shifted as she participated in the “delicate dancing of race,” navigating an imperative never to reveal vulnerability and a pressing responsibility to write about her experience—as she did most recently in Negroland: A Memoir, which just won the National Book Critics Circle prize for memoir.

Patrick McGilligan discussed his latest biography on a panel about Orson Welles.

In the panel “The Lives of Orson Welles,” Patrick McGilligan recalled the time spent researching his book Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane. Reading some eighteen years of the Kenosha News on microfilm rendered a feel for the place where Welles was born and, at six years old, recited Shakespeare. Observing that Welles loved literature throughout his career, writing for radio, stage, and film, McGilligan adopted a literary point of view for assessing his life. In contrast to McGilligan’s exploration of Welles’s early years, Josh Karp (author of Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind) asked from what perspective should one (can one?) write about such a protean figure. Was he a closeted homosexual? How important are the boozy friendships with figures such as John Houston? What does it signify that Welles insisted all his leading ladies cut their hair short? David Nasaw, whose books include The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst, asked the audience to consider Citizen Kane in terms of Welles’s complicated view of Hearst, and argued that Welles distorted Hearst’s essentially happy life in order to make a sensational biopic. All three panelists agreed that Welles is the prototypical challenging subject for the biographer. Nasaw, in particular, argued that such a massively talented actor, director, and writer can “steal your book” (as he put it): take over your life, appropriate your biographical voice, dislodge your point of view.

Painter Grace Hartigan was one of the five women discussed in “Forgotten Women’s Lives.”

The “Forgotten Women’s Lives” panel focused on five fascinating figures; moderator Annalyn Swan invited the speakers to bring them out of the shadows. Lisa Cohen discussed the three women she depicts in her book All We Know: Three Lives: Esther Murphy, a New York socialite and writer; Mercedes de Acosta, a writer and art collector; and Madge Garland, an Australian fashion editor at British Vogue. Her interest in Madge Garland began when she read Virginia Woolf’s diaries and came across the name as someone whose clothes Woolf wore; learning more about Garland led her to Murphy and Acosta, to lesbian life in Paris in the 1920s, and to the formal challenge of managing a group biography. In discussing her research for Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, Hayden Herrera evoked her experiences in Mexico, where her outsider point of view aimed to detach Kahlo from her primary identity as the wife of Diego Rivera and to place her in a larger international perspective. Cathy Curtis’s interest in the rich life of the painter Grace Hartigan, which she has traced in Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter, began when she was wandering through the abstract expressionist rooms at the Museum of Modern Art and suddenly came across Hartigan’s painting of Shinnecock Canal on Long Island. Her perspective on Hartigan’s life and work began with a desire to retrieve her reputation from the male-dominated art world of the 1940s and ’50s. In contrast to speakers on the earlier panel who had explored the challenge of writing about someone almost preternaturally famous, Cohen, Herrera, and Curtis persuasively argued for writing about unknown or relatively unknown figures; the gratification in such biographical work is giving voice to the formerly unheard.

The afternoon concluded with a conversation between William P. Kelly, the New York Library’s Director of Research Libraries, chairman of the Guggenheim Foundation, and former interim chancellor of CUNY and president of the Graduate Center, and Peter Guralnick, whose most recent book, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll, is a finalist for the Plutarch Award. Guralnick’s point of view in exploring Phillips’s life was one of passionate involvement and steady patience. For example, after driving many miles to conduct an interview, he found himself taking notes for almost six hours. In talking about Phillips, Guralnick assumed a voice of admiring commitment, and in one way or another, all the speakers at this year’s Leon Levy Biography Conference gave voice to their subjects: famous figures, unknown women, and, of course, their own biographical selves.

Deirdre David is the author of Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life (U. Penn Press, 2007) and Olivia Manning: A Woman at War (Oxford University Press, 2012). She is currently completing Pamela Hansford Johnson: A Writing Life (under contract to Oxford). Before becoming a biographer, she published several books dealing with Victorian literature and society.

Highlights of Spring and Summer Biographies

While publishing insiders may say that the overall selection of new biographies coming out this spring and summer is not as impressive as last year’s stellar crop, the range of subjects—some tried and true, some getting their first major due—should satisfy the most discriminating readers. Here are some books most likely to receive considerable attention in the coming months. You can see a longer list of upcoming releases here

A literary biography is one of the most notable books in March, Clair Harman’s Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart. Another March release garnering attention is Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America by Douglas Brinkley.

Books about two literary figures, one from each side of the manuscript, are among the highlights for April: The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire by Laura Claridge and Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour by Richard Zacks. April also brings us biographies on two of Hollywood’s most talented stars, Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep by Michael Schulman and Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power by Neal Gabler. Staying in the world of entertainment, Simon Callow publishes the third volume of his biography of Orson Welles, One-Man Band (a fourth volume is still to come). 

Moving to magazine publishing, the first of two battling bios about Helen Gurley Brown comes out in April, Brooke Hauser’s Enter Helen: The Invention of Helen Gurley Brown and the Rise of the Modern Single Woman. (Its competitor, Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown by Gerri Hirshey comes out in July.) Rounding out April, the long shelf of books about TR gets another addition with The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, A Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History by Darrin Lunde.

Speaking of subjects whom readers can’t seem to get enough of, May’s highlights include Sidney Blumenthal’s A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1849. A less-well known subject is sure to draw attention this spring with Jill Lepore’s Joe Gould’s Teeth. A notable university press release is Robert Parris Moses: A Life in Civil Rights and Leadership at the Grassroots by Laura Visser-Maessen. And turning to the world of pop culture, a musical titan gets time in the spotlight in Philip Norman’s Paul McCartney: The Life. Later in the season, Mark Ribowsky looks at another pop music icon in Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines: The Life and Music of James Taylor.

Heading into the summer months, June sees new works on two great military minds, William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country: A Life by James Lee McDonough and Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior by Arthur Herman. Moving from war to affairs of the heart, Michael Shelden brings us Melville in Love: The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick. Another notable book in June is The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A Life of David Brower by Robert Wyss.

Another group of subjects who inspire no shortage of biographies is the Kennedy family. July brings Larry Tye’s Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, and the first of two books this summer on Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, who died in 1948 at 28: Kick: The True Story of JFK’s Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth by Paula Byrne. The competing title, Kick Kennedy: The Charmed Life and Tragic Death of the Favorite Kennedy Daughter by Barbara Leaming, comes out in August. The death of a subject can stir interest in a biography, so the passing of Harper Lee last month should bring attention to Charles J. Shields’s Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee: From Scout to Go Set a Watchman, an updating of his earlier Lee biography.

Finally, while for most sports fans August means heated pennant races and the coming of football season, Roland Lazenby’s new book should have them thinking about basketball with his Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant.

 

Finalists Announced for 2015 Plutarch Award

PlutarchHorizontal

BIO is proud to announce the four finalists for the 2015 Plutarch Award —  the world’s only literary award presented by biographers, to biography.

The four finalists for the 2015 Plutarch Award are (alphabetical by author):

  • The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961 by Irwin F. Gellman (Yale)
  • Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock’n’Roll by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown)
  • Custer’s Trials:  A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles (Knopf)
  • Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva by Rosemary Sullivan (Harper)

In February, BIO’s Plutarch Committee – an esteemed group of BIO members, chaired by biographer and historian Douglas Brinkley – kicked off this year’s Plutarch selection process by naming ten outstanding nominees.  (If you missed the announcement, you can see the list right here.)  And now, after further deliberation by the committee, that list has been winnowed down to the four finalists – one of which will be chosen as the Best Biography of 2015.

BIO members in good standing will now be asked to cast their vote for the Plutarch Award winner.  Voting will remain open until midnight on May 15, 2016, to give members plenty of time to read any of the four books before making a decision.

The winner will be announced on Saturday, June 4, at the Seventh Annual BIO Conference in Richmond, Virginia. (Still haven’t registered for the conference? You can do that right here.)

Tomalin Wins 2016 BIO Award

Claire-Tomalin- NEW 2011 - credit Angus Muir

Claire Tomalin (photo by Angus Muir)

Claire Tomalin, winner of multiple prizes for her literary biographies, is the winner of the seventh annual BIO Award. BIO bestows this honor on a colleague who has made a major contribution to the advancement of the art and craft of biography. Previous award winners are Jean Strouse, Robert Caro, Arnold Rampersad, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, and Taylor Branch.

Tomalin will receive the honor during the 2016 BIO Conference on June 4 at the Richmond Marriott Downtown in Richmond, Virginia, where she will deliver the keynote address. Tomalin first worked in publishing and journalism before turning to writing biography. In 1974, she published The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, which won the Whitbread First Book Prize. Her subjects have included Percy Bysshe Shelley, Jane Austen, and Thomas Hardy. Her 1991 book The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, won the NCR, Hawthornden, and James Tait Black prizes, and she also won several awards for her 2002 biography of Samuel Pepys, including the Whitbread Biography and Book of the Year prizes. Writing about her latest book,Charles Dickens: A Life (2011), the Guardian called it “flawless in its historical detail” and noted, “What is so valuable about this biography is the palpable sense of the man himself that emerges.”

Tomalin has honorary doctorates from Cambridge and many other universities, has served on the Committee of the London Library, is a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, and is a vice president of the Royal Literary Fund, the Royal Society of Literature, and English PEN.

 

Registration for the Seventh Annual BIO Conference Now Open

Detailed conference information is available here.

Plutarch Award Nominees Announced

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:

James Atlas
Douglas Brinkley, Chair
Catherine Clinton
Deirdre A. David
John Aloysius Farrell
Carla Kaplan
Eve LaPlante
J.W. Renders
Will Swift    

The winning biography will be announced at the 7th Annual BIO Conference on Saturday, June 4, in Richmond, Virginia.

Authors Share Insights on the “Dubious” Art of the Blurb

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.)

Getting Blurbs
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. Continue Reading…