What to Leave In, What to Leave Out
Moderator William Souder began the session by asking questions he has asked himself: “What compels the reader to stick with the story that I’m telling;” and after doing his research, “How to deploy the research in service of the story.” Implicit in the second question was the topic of the panel. Souder then had each panelist describe their experiences and how they choose what to include and exclude to serve the stories they tell.
Anne Heller has written both a short biography, of Hannah Arendt, and a much longer one, of Ayn Rand. She used a metaphor to describe the difference between writing a long magazine profile or short biography versus a longer biography. The writing [of] the former, she said, is “a little like [creating] a ship in a bottle.” You need to show the shape of the ship, but you don’t have to provide the details and structure that would be necessary to build an actual seagoing ship or a full-length biography.
For her Arendt book, Heller said, she had to omit many details of her subject’s life that didn’t fit with the main theme she was developing. With the Rand book, she did research in newly available Russian archives and, she said, “I didn’t want to leave out anything that I had discovered.”
With her subject William Fox, Vanda Krefft ended up writing a much longer biography than she anticipated. Her book was the first on the life of the filmmaking pioneer, and she wanted to make sure Fox got the credit he deserved for his impact on the industry. Krefft also felt a need to provide context for the events of the era during Fox’s life (1879–1952). But while providing that context or dealing with tangential characters, she tried to follow this rule: “Never go more than three paragraphs without coming back to your subject.” In one case, that meant cutting out interesting information about someone in Fox’s life.
Krefft also knew she had to confront a black mark on Fox’s reputation: his conviction in 1942 for bribery and perjury. She came to believe that a negative action late in a person’s life doesn’t undercut their earlier accomplishments. A negative action can also spur the biographer to consider whether something happened to trigger a subject’s transgression, or was there something in their character that was always there that led to it.
Claudia Roth Pierpont faced a similar issue when writing about Eudora Welty. Pierpont has specialized in writing long profiles for The New Yorker, though the definition of long has decidedly shrunk over the years. Initially, she was told, “make it as long as it needs to be,” and some of her profiles reached 13,000 words. Now, the typical length is half that.
With her Welty piece, Pierpont’s research led her to believe, and write, that Welty had racist tendencies, at least later in her life. Pierpont thought there might have been even more in that vein that she didn’t find. Pierpont said “it was hard to decide” to include the element of racism she uncovered and the reaction against it was strong. Still, she didn’t change her mind about her interpretation of Welty’s character, and in the end she believed that Welty was a more complicated figure than people might have thought, because of her later racist attitudes.
Heller made a similar point about her two subjects, saying both could be cruel towards their critics. But the unflattering material a biographer uncovers can help reveal a subject’s true essence, and for her with Arendt, something Heller considered anomalous in her subject’s character provided an “opportunity to think anew” about the story she was telling.
In the Q&A at the end of the session, Vanda Krefft noted that in the archives biographers rarely have time to read everything. Thankfully, most institutions now allow researchers to photograph material, which she did in order to read everything later. When there are gaps in the research on a subject’s life, Krefft said, biographers can turn to the papers of people the subject knew, or simply compress the time periods for which there aren’t good sources. Pierpont said biographers could even skip those periods for which there are archival gaps.
On a question about an appropriate length of quotes, Heller said she wants to hear the subject’s voice, but not at the expense of the narrator’s. In general, she favors short quotes and reminded authors to consider fair use when choosing to quote long selections.
Due to technical difficulties, the transcript of the recording of this session was not complete. TBC apologizes to the participants.