Compleat Biographer Conference Program Set; Registration to Open Soon
The Roosevelt Hotel, in midtown Manhattan, is slated to be the home of the fourth annual BIO conference.
The 2013 Compleat Biographer conference, scheduled for May 17 through May 19 in New York City, will include 20 panels, three or four on-site research workshops, and four master classes, according to program committee chair Brian Jay Jones.
“The program committee has put together an outstanding lineup of subjects for the conference,” said BIO vice president Jones. “There will be not-to-missed panels for all biographers, seasoned professionals as well as those just starting.”
The preliminary list of panels includes such topics as Getting (Too) Close to Your Subject, the Politics of Blurbs and Reviews, Beginnings and Endings, Biography for Your Audiences, the Art of the Partial Biography, University Presses, Lesser-Known Relatives, Writing the African-American Biography, and Biography on Film. The latter panel will include a screening of a biographical film about Father Michael Lapsley by Melvin McCray, a longtime editor at ABC News.
As with each conference, the keynote address will be given by that year’s BIO Award winner. The 2013 winner will be announced in the January 2013 issue of TBC. Past winners have been Jean Strouse, Robert Caro, and Arnold Rampersad.
The Friday of the conference weekend will feature research workshops at leading libraries and archives in New York City. Four master classes will be held Sunday morning; the topics are Writing a Proposal, the Art of the Interview, the Beginning Biographer, and the Art of Self-Publishing.
Places in all panels, workshops, and classes will be limited, and BIO members are encouraged to register early. “Not only do we expect a record attendance,” said James McGrath Morris, BIO president, “but we should have an outstanding lineup of editors, agents, and publicists at the conference by virtue of being in New York City.”
At press time final arrangements were being made with the Roosevelt Hotel to host the conference. The site committee will aggressively seek out inexpensive housing options and will also create a program of room sharing.
BIO members should watch their email later this month for the complete conference lineup and instructions for registration.
All In: Biographers React to the Patraeus-Broadwell Affair
Sales of All In soared after news of the scandal broke.
Readers rarely come across articles on the craft or ethics of biography in the mainstream media. There are some exceptions, of course: the publication earlier this year of the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography drew major coverage in such periodicals as Esquire andNewsweek, and Caro was interviewed on CBS’s Sunday Morning.
Last month, we saw another exception to this rule. When subject and writer have an affair and that affair leads to a public scandal for the subject—a revered popular figure—the ethics of biography soar to the media forefront.
Most TBC readers are by now well aware of the details of the Paula Broadwell–David Petraeus relationship. Their affair, which took place while Broadwell was writing a biography of the CIA head and highly regarded general, sparked a speedy comedown for one of the most influential and powerful public figures of the past decade. More important to BIO members, it publicly raised the professional and ethical dilemmas biographers can face. Those dilemmas go beyond the sexual; Broadwell may have broken the law with the way she handled classified information, though she is unlikely to face any charges.
With the revelation of the affair, some reviewers’ comments about Broadwell’s gushing treatment of her subject seem a little more pointed now. Even the title of the book, All In, raised eyebrows in this new light. And given the sensational nature of the relationship, author has now become subject, as news organizations try to understand Broadwell, what led her to the respected general, how she won his trust, and why she crossed a moral line that ruined his career. (Time will tell how the scandal affects hers.)
Adding some insight was Vernon Loeb, Broadwell’s coauthor and something of a forgotten figure in all this. It was Loeb who took Broadwell’s raw notes from the field and turned them into a book, though he wrote that Broadwell “liberally” revised his text. He also noted in theWashington Post that Broadwell and Petraeus had “an unusually close relationship”—but not one he equated with an extramarital affair.
Below are more of the media’s and BIO members’ reactions to this incident and its implications for biographers in general. Feel free to share your thoughts with us
“In the end, biographers are much like spies. They seduce their subjects into telling their secrets, which they then use for their own purposes. When they are done, they cast their subject aside, ready to move onto the next. In that sense, the relationship between the Director of the CIA and his biographer was beautifully symmetrical.”
—Emma G. Keller, biographer of Winnie Mandela, in the Guardian
“Any biography of a living, breathing and active figure who’s still at the height of his powers is going to have to strike a delicate balance between access and objectivity. It can be very tricky.”
—Tim Duggan, executive editor at HarperCollins, in the New York Times
“There are not a lot of journalists who would want to get involved in an authorized biography. If you get too close to your subject, you are nothing more than a transcriber, and readers should know that.”
—Carol Felsenthal, biographer of Katharine Graham, among others, in theNew York Times
“As with psychiatrists, same with biographers, you shouldn’t sleep with your subject.”
—Blake Bailey, biographer of John Cheever, among others, in theHuffington Post
“She participated in something with her subject that reflects on his character and brings his judgment into question and she didn’t disclose it. It doesn’t even matter much what it was that she did. The real issue is the lack of disclosure of important information like that to the reader.”
—James McGrath Morris, BIO president, in Salon
“You can’t expect to be friends or bosom buddies with the person you write about. If you are, you haven’t done your job. You work for only one person, your reader. You can’t have two masters.”
—David Nasaw, BIO member, in Salon
“For me all of the attention that David Petraeus’s affair with Paula Broadwell has brought to biography seems akin to the proverbial tempest-in-a-teapot. It does not make me rethink the biographer’s relationship to her or his subject. For one thing, how much of a real biographer is Broadwell, who had to pull in a journalist to help her? This does not sound like the working biographers I know. . . . I do not think that the Petraeus-Broadwell situation tells me much about biography. However, it says a great deal about Paula Broadwell and David Petraeus.”
—Gayle Feldman, BIO member, via email
“Broadwell decided to write All In after Harvard asked her to leave the PhD program. This, and other facts coming to light, suggests that rather than looking to become a respected biographer, her main goal was to market herself and salvage her career more broadly. The takeaway from this scandal for me as a biographer? Do not let any effort at promoting my book and myself outstrip the energy I devote to producing a quality work of biography in the first place.”
—Andrew Marble, BIO member, via email
“After the Petraeus/Broadwell mess I’m even more convinced that the authorized biography with all its pureed truths is a cheat to history.”
—Kitty Kelley, BIO member, via email
“Of course, I am following the Petraeus scandal with a keen appetite—after all, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the words ‘biographer’ and ‘sexy’in the same sentence—but the only thought that keeps running through my mind is a self-congratulatory I-told-you: ‘See, this is why I only write about dead people!’ Given that the subject of my first book was a chronic philanderer and my second is a brothel-keeper, my husband has been enthusiastically seconding that thought.”
—Debby Applegate, BIO member, via email
A Biographer’s Point of View on the Petraeus-Broadwell Scandal
By Amy Schapiro
As the Petraeus scandal unfolded, the newspaper headlines ranged from the titillating—the New York Post’s “Brass Balls” and “Love Bytes: Classified Secrets on Paula’s Computer”—to the more staid Washington Post’s “Citing affair, Petraeus steps down from CIA.” The attention these blaring headlines bring to a subject usually would be every biographer’s dream.
The only biographer who may not agree is Paula Broadwell, the Petraeus biographer 20 years his junior. This is her nightmare, but one of her own making. As a female biographer roughly the same age as Broadwell, my larger concern is that the scandal will stain future female biographers who write favorable portraits of someone of the opposite sex. Will they be accused of the Broadwell syndrome, getting to know the subject too intimately?
For whatever reason, the stereotypical biographer is thought to be akin to David McCullough, an older white male, not a younger female. When I published my biography of Millicent Fenwick, a woman born the same year as my grandmother, I was repeatedly asked if Fenwick was my grandmother. She was not. I had never even met Fenwick, and that question always irked me. Did I have to be related to someone to write about her? Now I worry that in the future if a woman writes about a powerful living man and is granted extraordinary access that the female biographer will be scrutinized. I hope not. My next biography is about a man, former attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach, who died earlier this year, at the age of 90. With nearly half a century separating us in age, I don’t think I’ll face such scrutiny, but what if the age gap had been narrower?
The other tragedy I see is the exposure of the lurid emails. Past scandals have prompted lawmakers and others to refrain from keeping diaries, a primary source for historians and biographers, for fear they could be used against them. As we become a more global society, snail mail, another key tool for biographers, is disappearing in favor of emails, texts, and tweets. In the future will people refrain from emailing too? Just tonight I emailed a good friend who loves tongue sandwiches. I wanted him to know that there are two new restaurants that serve this delicacy, yet I couldn’t bring myself to write the word tongue—I thought it might be suggestive if a third party ever read the email. Crazy, I know. How many others are going to take pause? Or are people going to resort to the kind of emailing that Broadwell and Petraeus employed—writing, but not sending, draft emails. They shared access to the same email account and would correspond by reading each other’s draft emails and saving their responses as drafts.
Jill Kelly, the recipient of the threatening emails that ultimately led to the revelation of the Petraeus-Broadwell affair, is now also entangled in her own email investigation. One of Kelly’s “flirtatious” emails states that General John Allen looked good on television; are comments like that now going to be studied under a microscope to see if there is a greater meaning? Where does this all end? Will this scandal be forgotten tomorrow or will it stain future biographers and their living subjects of the opposite sex?
I’m often asked about Doris Kearns Goodwin, one of the preeminent presidential biographers, and whether she got too intimate with one of her early subjects, Lyndon Baines Johnson. She has always denied this, and I believe her. It’s been two decades since Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream was published. While the rumors still circulate, they haven’t prevented Goodwin from enjoying a successful career. Hopefully the Broadwell scandal won’t derail future female biographers, just as the Johnson allegations didn’t derail Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Amy Schapiro is the author of a forthcoming biography, Leading Justice: The Life of Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach.
Short-Bio Pro Stirs Controversy with New Work
When the Wall Street Journal wanted a review of some of the best short biographies of all time, it turned to Paul Johnson. The noted British historian has written five, by his own count, along with dozens of biographical essays. The key to writing the shorter books, Johnson says, is “a combination of ruthlessness and elegance.” Among the works he praised in his piece were Macaulay, by Sir Arthur Bryant, and Garry Wills’sLincoln at Gettysburg.
The Journal may have tapped Johnson to contribute his thoughts on the subject now because his latest life sketch has recently been released. The book, on Charles Darwin, has stirred up some ruthlessness in its own right. In the New Scientist, reviewer Rowan Hooper called it “a vendetta, an agenda-driven hatchet-job.” The title of the review describes Darwin: Portrait of a Genius as “ludicrous.” On this side of the Atlantic, Mark Joseph Stern of Slate also called Johnson’s work a vendetta and said that the book’s closing pages attempt to “attribut[e] to Darwin a startling majority of the 20th century’s tragedies.” According to both reviewers, Johnson seeks to draw a direct line from Darwin’s theory of natural selection to Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and any other recent purveyor of political mass murder you can name.
Johnson entered into this project with some clear biases. He’s an outspoken, unabashed conservative, and in an article published several years ago in Forbes, he laid out his thoughts on what he called “Darwinian fundamentalists”: “Of all the fundamentalist groups at large in the world today, the Darwinians seem to me the most objectionable. They are just as strident and closed to argument as Christian or Muslim fundamentalists, but unlike those two groups the Darwinians enjoy intellectual respectability.”
Of course, the two reviewers cited here are writing for media outlets with their own biases. And not all the reviews have been negative. Kirkuscalls the biography “a probing, well-written overview of Darwin’s impact.” Even Stern offers praise for the book, noting that “Johnson’s overview of Darwin’s theory of evolution is clear, rich, and accurate.” And as a short biographical treatment of the subject, Darwin is “brisk and sufficient.” But Johnson’s views on the impact of Darwin’s theory, Stern and Hooper believe, are off the mark.
Johnson’s book illuminates, again, how biographers’ prejudices can color their final output. In this case, for some readers, the author’s seemingly obvious agenda may make the biography less than what it could have been. Or else it did exactly what the author intended.
Churchill Digitally Revealed, from Speeches to Cigar Bills
During the recent Frankfurt Book Fair, Bloomsbury Publishing announced the release of nearly 1 million documents pertaining to the life of Winston Churchill. The announcement comes after two years of work digitizing the documents, done in conjunction with the Sir Winston Churchill Archive Trust and Churchill Heritage. The documents include letters the British leader exchanged with everyone from school chums to royalty, drafts of his famous speeches, and such everyday minutiae as invoices for the cigars he bought. The archived documents also contain links to relevant external resources, such as newspaper articles of the day. Bloomsbury sees the online collection as a boon not only to historians and researchers but also to “teachers, undergraduates . . . [and] those in the fields of politics, business studies, linguistics and leadership as well as any member of the general public with an interest in 20th century history.”
“Sir Winston Churchill Digital Archives Go Live”
Dive into a Virtual Attic of Online Materials
BIO president James McGrath Morris recently introduced TBC to unz.org, an online compendium of sources that includes periodicals, books, and videos. The periodicals range from the scholarly to pulp fiction and include several issues of the American Spectator (not the conservative magazine of recent years), whose editors included Theodore Dreiser and Eugene O’Neill. The site says it intends to “provide an extensive free library of written content to everyone on the Internet, eventually containing a comprehensive collection of high-quality books and periodical issues.”
Brush Up Your Style
Your writing style, that is. While this isn’t about research per se, it is one way to improve your writing. BIO Washington correspondent Pat McNees shared this tip with the Washington Biography Group, and we thought it was worth passing along. For quick answers to questions about everything from commas and number treatment to organizing and formatting a bibliography, visit the Chicago Manual of Style website, which has an online style guide, including a Q&A section.
We want your research tips! Send us any research tool or technique that makes your writing life easier, and we’ll feature it in TBC.
Prosthetics and a fat suit gave Anthony Hopkins the appropriate Hitchcockian jowls and girth.
Biography on Film
For a change of pace from the world of scandal and ideological agendas, TBC once again offers a quick overview of some Hollywood projects that feature biographies.
On Screen Now
When it comes to Hollywood biographies, all the attention of late has been on Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln, which has received mostly glowing reviews. (See BIO member David O. Stewart’s take on the accuracy of the film in “News and Notes,” below.) But another big biopic was recently released: Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role and Helen Mirren as his wife, Alma Reville. As in Lincoln, this film focuses on just one small slice of the subject’s life, in this case the filming of Psycho. To help with her portrayal of the lesser-known Reville, who was crucial to Hitchcock’s success, Mirren turned at least in part to Alma Hitchcock: The Woman behind the Man, a 2003 biography written by the Hitchcocks’ daughter, Patricia, and Laurent Bouzereau.
Over the past few months, various media outlets have reported on several different biopics in the works. Here’s a rundown on some of them. Al Pacino is reportedly interested in playing Joe Paterno in a biopic about the football coach based on Joe Posnanski’s Paterno….Filmmaker Terence Davies has chosen Cynthia Nixon to play Emily Dickinson in his version of the poet’s life, A Quiet Passion….The life of boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson will come to the screen in Sweet Thunder, with David Oyelowo in the title role. The screenplay is based on the biography by Wil Haygood….The subject of several recent biographies, former Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury will also be the focus of a film tentatively set for a 2014 release, with Sacha Baron Cohen as the lead….A. Scott Berg’s biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius is the source for a movie exploring the relationship between the editor and author Thomas Wolfe. Colin Firth will play Perkins and Michael Fassbender will be Wolfe….In the “Biopics Make Strange Bedfellows” category, liberal actor John Cusack announced that his production company will make a film about Rush Limbaugh, with Cusack taking on the title role….Two films are in the works about Brian Epstein, the man who guided the Beatles to stardom. One is being produced by Tom Hanks and will feature Benedict Cumberbatch as Epstein. The other will be based on a graphic novel slated for release in 2013….The estate of Johnny Carson has approved a biopic about the late-night TV star, based on the much delayed (and as of press time, still unpublished) biography by Bill Zehme, Carson the Magnificent: An Intimate Portrait….German journalist Peter Seewald has sold the film rights to his upcoming biography of Pope Benedict; the film will be distributed internationally.
Media Outlets Announce Best Bios of 2012
Keeping track of the “best of” lists for books can be daunting, with everyone from top newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic to Amazon and Oprah weighing in. Thankfully, Publishers Marketplace makes it a little easier by aggregating the lists to present the most praiseworthy books of the year. With some results still coming in, two biographies have turned up most often on the lists PM watches: The Passage of Power
, by Robert Caro, and Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
, by Jon Meacham.
Looking at some of the individual lists, TBC also saw these titles winning praise:
- All We Know: Three Lives, by Lisa Cohen (New York Times)
- Barack Obama: The Story, by David Maraniss (New York Times)
- Bertie: A Life of Edward VII, by Jane Ridley (The Economist)
- The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss (Amazon, Time, New York Times)
- Eisenhower in War and Peace, by Jean Edward Smith (Christian Science Monitor)
- Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch, by Sally Bedell Smith (Goodreads, Choice Awards)
- Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, by D. T. Max (Guardian, The Economist)
- Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, by Cynthia Carr (Newsday)
- On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson, by William Souder (Slate, New York Times)
- The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, by R. J. Smith (New York Times)
- The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, by David Nasaw (New York Times)
- Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper (Guardian)
- Saul Steinberg: A Biography, by Deborah Bair (New York Times)
- Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, by Timothy Egan (Amazon, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times)
- Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim, A 900-Year-Old Story Retold, by John Guy (Financial Times)
- Titian: His Life, by Sheila Hale (The Economist)
Previous unauthorized biographies of Eliot include Lyndall Gordon’s 1999 work.
Potential Windfall for Eliot Biographer
The Guardian, noting the recent death of Valerie Eliot, second wife of T. S. Eliot, said her passing could open up the poet’s previously private papers. Valerie was trustee of her husband’s literary estate and oversaw the publication of his letters, though she had “prevented any writer from examining his documents with a free hand.” If the trustees of the Eliot estate choose an official biographer, which the Guardian suggests is possible, he or she will likely have that free reign. Clare Reihill, a trustee of the estate, indicated that Mrs. Eliot had recently become more open to the idea of selecting an official biographer, but she wanted all of her husband’s letters made public first.
Journalist Offers Another Route for Self-Publishing Biographies
In his blog, New York Times
journalist Mark Oppenheimer provides a primer on one way to self-publish a short biography. Finding himself with material he couldn’t fit into an article about sex columnist and anti-bullying advocate Dan Savage but seeing no feasible outlet for another article on him, Oppenheimer took the DIY approach. He wrote a 12,000-word biography of Savage and formatted the book himself using the platform available at PressBooks.com
. Oppenheimer admitted he had one advantage over some biographers: “I had a good editor already.” For authors without a good editor, Oppenheimer says it’s worth hiring one. But that expense would most likely be the only major one. He writes, “The platforms and hosting services now make this very very easy.”
Claire Tomalin’s honors include the 2002 Whitbread Book of the Year award for her biography of Samuel Pepys.
The Biographers’ Club Prizes
Three authors walked away with honors at the Biographers’ Club prize dinner, held last month in London. Thomas Penn took the H. W. Fisher Best First Biography Prize for Winter King, a look at England’s Henry VII. The judges noted that “Penn tells the alarming story of this chilly monarch not just with impressive scholarship but with rare artistry.” The award comes with a £5,000 ($8,000) prize. The winner of the £2,000 ($3,200) Tony Lothian Prize was Jane Willis for Marguerite, Byron, and the Literary Factory. This award goes to the best proposal by an uncommissioned first-time biographer and is sponsored by Elizabeth, Duchess of Buccleuch, in memory of her mother, the biographer and broadcaster Tony Lothian, OBE. Finally, the club gave its Lifetime Services to Biography Award to Claire Tomalin, whose many books include Charles Dickens: A Life, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, and Jane Austen: A Life. The Biographers Club was founded in 1997 by Andrew Lownie, currently a BIO board member.
Paul Hendrickson’s story about Ernest Hemingway and his boat Pilar won the Heartland Prize for Nonfiction. Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost focuses on the latter part of the author’s life and his relationship with the fishing boat he sailed in Cuba. The Heartland Prize, sponsored by the Chicago Tribune, honors books that embody the spirit of the nation’s heartland; both the biographer and his subject were born in Illinois.
Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Short List
Timothy Egan has won another accolade for Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher. Along with being honored by Amazon and named one ofPublishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2012, Egan’s book was the only biography on the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association’s short list for its 2013 book awards, given to books published during 2012. The association honors titles by Pacific Northwestern authors and those on regional subjects, and it considered 200 nominated titles for this year’s short list. Winning books will be announced in January.
Randell Cottage Writer in Residence
New Zealand journalist Denis Welch was chosen by the Randell Cottage Writer’s Trust to be its next writer-in-residence at the cottage. Along with the residency, Welch will receive a $22,000 stipend. He will use the time and the money to complete a biography of former New Zealand prime minister Norman Kirk. Welch previously published a biography of Helen Clark, another former prime minister and currently a high-ranking UN official. The trust is supported in part by the Embassy of France, and each year the other six-month residency is earmarked for a French writer.
Samuel Johnson Prize
National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence Wade Davis was given the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest. Davis examines the lives of George Mallory and other British climbers of his era who had fought in World War I and then set out to scale Everest. The anonymously sponsoredprize, which comes with a check for £20,000 ($32,200), is the UK’s premier award for nonfiction books.
Wellcome Trust Book Prize
Circulation, Thomas Wright’s biography of scientist William Harvey, won the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, given to a work of fiction or nonfiction that deals with themes relating to health and medicine. Mark Lawson, chair of the judging panel, noted that Circulation “brings innovation to the often-conventional genre of biography: dividing the chronology of William Harvey’s life with thematic and historical essays.” The honor comes with a £20,000 ($32,000) prize.
Governor’s General Literary Awards
Canada’s highest honor for English-language nonfiction went to Ross King for his Leonardo and the Last Supper. The book is not a traditional biography; Booklist called it a “brainy mix of biography and art history.” The Governor General awards are sponsored by the Canada Council for the Arts and come with a $25,000 prize. The publishers of the winning titles also receive a $3,000 award to help promote the books. Last month, in announcing the short-listed titles for the nonfiction category, TBC neglected to mention King’s book and another biography, The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca, by Carol Bishop-Gwyn. We regret the omissions.
Costa Book Awards Short List
The Costa Book Awards has chosen four titles for the short list in its biography category. They are:
- Patrick Leigh-Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper;
- The Crocodile by the Door: The Story of a House, a Farm, and a Family, by Selina Guinness;
- Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household, by Kate Hubbard; and
- Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, by Mary Talbot and Bryan Talbot.
The awards, formerly the Whitbread Book Awards, are among the UK’s most prestigious literary prizes, offering £5,000 ($8,000) to the winner in each of five categories, with one author receiving another £30,000 ($48,300) for selection as the Costa Book of the Year. The winner will be announced in January.
2013 Biblio Award Nominees Sought
Nominations are being sought from Active BIO members for the 2013 Biblio Award. The award is given each year to a librarian or an archivist, nominated by a BIO member, who has gone beyond his or her way to assist biographers in their research. Last year, when the award was inaugurated, it was presented to Ned Comstock in appreciation of his work during more than thirty years as an archivist at the Cinematic Arts Library of the University of Southern California. In presenting the award, BIO cited Comstock’s essential contributions to the work of biographers that have had a profound impact on the legacies of their subjects. Please send your nominations to us by December 31, 2012.
The Writer’s Life
Writer Chooses between Loyalty and Sales
For some writers, the turf war between Amazon and independent bookstores is forcing them to choose sides. As Richmond Magazine reported last month, novelist David Robbins went with the big gun—and alienated the local bookstore owner who had previously promoted his work. Robbins’s next book will be published by Thomas & Mercer, an imprint of Amazon’s new publishing arm. Bookstore owner Kelly Justice said she won’t carry the book, though she has sold all of Robbins’s previous ones. “It’s published by my competition, so I can’t do that,” she said. “It’s disappointing and saddening that I won’t be able to support this book. It breaks my heart, honestly.” Robbins said he considered Justice a friend but that he had to adapt to a new system that is “more favorable to authors.”
So you want to be a writer…unless it comes out of / your soul like a rocket, / unless being still would / drive you to madness or / suicide or murder, / don’t do it.
A Word about the Year’s Top Words
Both Dictionary.com and the Oxford English Dictionary (US and UK versions) recently announced their Word of the Year for 2012. Dictionary.com went with bluster
, which it felt was appropriate given a year of super-storms and political bloviations. The OED choseominshambles
for its UK word, which has its roots in the satirical TV showThe Thick of It
, which first used the expression in 2009. It was heard this year in Parliament and then evolved into Romneyshambles
to describe the former presidential candidate’s less-than-stellar European trip. The word suggests a person or situation that is in crisis on many levels. For its US word, the OED went with GIF
, the acronym for graphic interchange format. For years most of us knew GIF as a file extension for images, but the OED singled it out for its newer use, as the name for short animated images dropped into websites. (You can see some examples here
.) Not everyone championed the OED’s choice; Katy Waldman of Slate
said it was “hard to forgive,” while the Chronicle of Higher Education
disputed giving the honor to an acronym, and said “America has been slighted” with the selection of GIF.
Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.
Writing Simple May Be Hard
Ready for a writing challenge? See what you can create using only the “ten hundred” most common English words. That’s what the website splasho offers with its Up-Goer Five Text Editor
. Try to write about a complex subject as simply as possible. The editor will tell you when you’ve used a word not on the list, or you can improve your odds by studying the list beforehand. Hall of Fame entries so far include a simplified version of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy and synopses of popular movies. The exercise was inspired by another website, xkcd.com
, which renamed the Saturn V
rocket the Up-Goer Five
in a cartoon that described the workings of the space vehicle in only the simplest terms.
A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.
Croswell Bowen was an accomplished writer and photographer.
Betsy Connor Bowen
is pleased to announce that Back from Tobruk
, her father’s long-lost WWII memoir, has just been published by Potomac Books. She adds, “In conjunction with the book’s release, I have updatedwww.betsyconnorbowen.com
and look forward to blogging as ‘The Tilting Liberal.’ I’ve got a few things to say about how the world today might look through the eyes of one very politically engaged member of the greatest generation.” Martin Quitt
, whose new book is featured in this month’s “In Stores” column, tells us, “I’ve been introducing talks on my Stephen A. Douglas and Antebellum Democracy
by noting the number of books about Lincoln and then saying, ‘No Douglas, no Lincoln.’ I proceed to explain why. Yet mine is only the third bio of Douglas in forty years!”Marlene Trestman
writes that her biography-in-progress, Fair Labor: The Remarkable Life of Bessie Margolin, New Dealer and Supreme Court Advocate,
was featured in the Summer/Fall issue of Goucher Quarterly
, the college’s alumni magazine. Her piece, “The Little Girl from New Orleans,” traces the parallels and connections between Margolin’s life and Trestman’s. When All In: The Education of General David Petraeus
was published in January, it won some favorable reviews and notice for the close relationship between Broadwell and her subject. Writing about the scandal that erupted months later, the Los Angeles Times
singled outAndrew Marble
’s review of the book in the Washington Independent Review of Books
for finding the lack of distance somewhat troubling. Marble had written, “In many places it is unclear whether a particular statement or perspective belongs to Broadwell, Petraeus himself or others.”David O. Stewart
wrote a piece for the History News Network that answers the question, “How True is Lincoln
?”—about the Stephen Spielberg film on the 16th president. To see Stewart’s answer, go here
, making the media rounds to promote his biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, had an informative and of course amusing exchange with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show
. The entire, unedited video is availableonline
. And the Leon Levy Center for Biography has posted a video of Nasaw’s November 19 appearance, available here
. Congratulations toCatherine Reef
, whose The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne
was chosen by Kirkus Reviews
as one of the top 10 books of 2012. Laura Claridge
recently gave a talk on the subject of her last bio, Emily Post, to open the Woodstock, Illinois, yearly lecture series. The series is held at the famed opera house of the town (the movie Groundhog Day
was filmed in Woodstock, Illinois). The series ends in May with a talk by Joseph Epstein, author of the recent Essays in Biography
. Stacy Schiff
graced the “Sunday Review” section of the New York Times
with an essay titled “The Dual Lives of the Biographer.”
Among other insights, she noted that calling the biographer’s craft a day job is a misnomer: “Everyone who practices it knows biography to be a middle-of-the-night business.”
Kit Ward, Literary Agent and BIO Supporter
Kit Ward, a friend to BIO and many authors.
Christina Ward, 59, known to all as “Kit,” died on November 19 after a brief illness. Ward, who was the founder of the Christina Ward Literary Agency and most recently co-owner of the Ward & Balkin Agency, was an early supporter of BIO and a well-known agent to the organization’s membership.
Ward, who had been an acquiring editor at Little, Brown publishers, was a frequent attendee of writer conferences and an encouraging voice to many writers. “I was fortunate enough to meet Kit at the Cape Cod Writers Conference in 2006,” recalled Evan Howard. “She calmed my fears about how I would find an audience for my first novel. As a result of her encouragement, my endeavor had a successful result and she became my friend and supporter in the process, always answering emails and showing genuine interest in my progress.”
On behalf of the BIO board and its members, BIO is making a contribution in memory of Ward to the Old Ship Church, Access to Education Fund, 107 Main St., Hingham, MA 02043.
Amanuensis: A person whose employment is to write what another dictates, or to copy what another has written. Source: Webster’sRevised Unabridged Dictionary (1913).
Biographers are also often accused of voyeurism and sensationalism. Indeed, perhaps as acts of self-defense, several women and men of note have written their own biographies or memoirs–[Irving] Howe wrote at least one, depending how you count; [Howard] Fast, two–conceivably as a way of making one’s own case before a prosecutorial or gossip-mongering historian/biographer might appear on the scene. Elsa Morante, the Italian writer and wife of novelist Alberto Moravia, left a warning for biographers: To expose “the private life of a writer is gossip,” she said, “and gossip no matter about whom offends me.” Janet Malcolm, the controversial American journalist goes further, characterizing biographers as burglars, parasites, and obsessive stalkers who trespass and injure. [More
“Author’s Blog: The Historian’s Challenge,” by Gerald Sorin
Some philosophers are scornful of the notion that the life can help us understand the work. Wittgenstein had a notion of understanding as seeing connections rather than building a theory. When you understand a person you see connections, you don’t build a theory about them. Biography can be like that.” [More
“A Life in Writing: Ray Monk”
From the Editor
As my predecessor often did, I’m writing these notes in an airport, more than ready for a flight home. I just finished a research trip to the Twin Cities, which started off not so smoothly, as I struggled to remember what it’s like to go through archival material and pore over dozens of spools of microfilm (skills not typically required for my YA bios). But I finally found the groove and got some good information.
I also had the chance to meet BIO member Jack El-Hai, who had earlier sent me some excellent suggestions for my topic after I contacted him for help. As I’m sure our members know, that’s one of the benefits of belonging to BIO—you become part of a community that’s willing to share what it knows, from navigating archives to sidestepping publishing pitfalls. During our meeting at a local coffee shop, Jack and I also commiserated over some of the vagaries of our field and freelancing in general. When facing any of life’s difficulties, it’s always good to know you’re not alone.
Certainly TBC is not alone in devoting a good bit of coverage this month to the David Petraeus–Paula Broadwell brouhaha. Much has been written and said about the ethical issues raised by the subject-author affair. We’ve included comments from a variety of writers—many of them BIO members—and a longer reflection by Amy Schapiro, who approaches the topic as a female biographer around the same age as Broadwell.
On a more cheerful front, this issue also has an update on the Compleat Biographer Conference, and you can expect more details in the New Year. Speaking of that, I want to wish all BIO members and other TBCreaders a happy holiday season and a joyous and prosperous 2013.
Sold to Publishers
Listed here are book proposals that have recently sold to publishing houses. The information is obtained from Publishers Marketplace
and other sources.
Fair Labor: The Remarkable Life of Bessie Margolin, New Dealer and Supreme Court Advocate
sold to Louisiana State
Marconi and Our Time:
The Man behind the Birth of Modern Communications
sold to Oxford University Press
by John Pearce at
Westwood Creative Artists
Charlotte Decroes Jacobs
American Icon, Scientific Outcast
sold to Oxford University Press
by Rachel Vogel at Mary Evans
(WWII pilot Robert Lee Scott)
sold to Thomas Dunne Books
by Brian DeFiore at
DeFiore & Co.
A Story of the Young Doc Watson
sold to Clarion
The Outsiders of Montparnasse:
Chaim Soutine and the
School of Paris
sold to Palgrave
by Scott Mendel at the
Mendel Media Group
The Thief Taker, the Housebreaker, and the Novelist:
How Daniel Defoe and
Two Notorious Criminals
Enthralled London and
Created Scandal Journalism
sold to Lyons Press
by Elise Capron at
Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency
Marie Antoinette’s Head:
The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution
sold to Lyons Press
Cycle of Lies:
The Fall of Lance Armstrong
sold to Harper
by P. J. Mark at
Janklow & Nesbit
Stephen A. Douglas
and Antebellum Democracy
by Martin Quitt
(Cambridge University Press)
Life, Legacy, and Image;
by Alan Forrest
Empress of Fashion:
A Life of Diana Vreeland
by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
Twitch upon a Star:
The Bewitched Life and Career
of Elizabeth Montgomery
by Herbie J. Pilato
Jesus of Nazareth:
The Infancy Narratives
by Joseph Ratzinger and
Pope Benedict XVI
A Life of Edward VII
by Jane Ridley
(Chatto & Windus)
Martin Amis: The Biography
by Richard Bradford
Adi Godrej: A Biography
by Nandini Bhaskaran
(Shobhaa De Books)
John McAfee’s Last Stand
by Joshua Davis
by John Dos Passos Coggin
(Florida Historical Society Press)
Legendary Lyricist and
Human Rights Activist
by Harriet Hyman Alonso
(Wesleyan University Press)
Lincoln’s Battle with God:
A President’s Struggle with Faith andWhat It Meant for America
by Stephen Mansfield
Listening for Madeleine:
A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices
by Leonard S. Marcus
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The Life of Madame Mao
by Ross Terrill
(New Word City ebook)
by Robert M. Utley
(Yale University Press)
The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens
by Robert Gottlieb
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Beyond the Moments of Zen
by Bruce Watson
(Word City Press)
La Folie Baudelaire
by Robert Calasso
translated by Alastair McEwen
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Charles Dickens in Love
by Robert Garnett
The Life of Lawren Harris
by James King
South African Pioneer, Poet,
by Randolph Vigne
All In: The Education of
General David Petraeus
by Paula Broadwell and
by Simon Callow
Adele: The Biography
by Chas Newkey-Burden
The Invisible Woman:
The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens
by Claire Tomalin
It’s My Way
by Blair Stonechild
The Biographer’s Craft
James McGrath Morris
Ashok R. Chandran
Sandra Kimberley Hall
Laura L. Hoopes
A Moment with the Vice President
Whatever you’re celebrating this month, we at BIO wish you and yours the happiest of holidays—and we’ve even got something of a gift for you.
Over the past few months the program committee for the 2013 BIO conference has been diligently putting together the panels and master classes that will be waiting for you at the conference in May. This issue of TBC offers a hint of the exciting sessions on offer, and we’ll be formally announcing the rest soon. The program committee has incorporated suggestions from BIO members as we put together our panels; we also took into consideration results of the conference survey many of you completed. We think this year’s sessions will be informative and entertaining. You’ll hear more from us soon, so keep checking your inboxes and watching this space.
One more thing: if you enjoy reading TBC as much as I do and would like to engage in ongoing discussions of biography, publishing, or pretty much anything else, look for BIO’s Facebook page, open to BIO members only. Once you “like” the page, you can freely join the conversations on writing and research, or maybe update the group on the progress of your latest project. There’s almost always something interesting going on—and if you prefer just to read what others are saying, that’s okay, too. Come join us on Facebook. (We’re also on Twitter, at @BiographersInt.)
Once again, happy holidays, and here’s to a wonderful new year. We’ll see you in January.
Brian Jay Jones
BIO Vice President