News

BIO Calls on Pulitzer Board to Create Separate Category for Biography

Responding to the recent trend of awarding the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography to authors of memoirs, Biography International Organization has written to Pulitzer Prize administrator, Mike Pride, asking that the board overseeing the Pulitzer Prizes to create a separate category for biography and a new category for autobiography and memoir. Pride recently left his position but turned over the letter to Dana Canedy, his replacement as administrator.

In a letter signed by BIO Board president Will Swift and Advisory Committee chair Debby Applegate, BIO specifically asked the Pulitzer Prize Board to do the following: 
(1) review the recent history of the prize for “Biography or Autobiography
;
(2) consider biographies on their own merits and thus as their own unique prize category;
(3) consolidate autobiography and memoir into a new and distinct category.

TBC first addressed this issue in June, when James McGrath Morris interviewed David Nasaw on the topic. Nasaw, chair of the Pulitzer Prize Biography/Autobiography Committee in 2015, and a two-time finalist for the Biography Pulitzer prize, said, “It was our understanding that a memoir is a piece of a life, a moment of a life, a part of a life, and it is not documented. There is no corroborating material, there are no additional interviews, there are no newspaper articles, and there is no context provided. A memoir is a work—as the title makes clear—of memory. Autobiography and biographies are not works of memory.”

Commenting on BIO’s effort, Swift said, I am grateful to Cathy Curtis, Steve Weinberg, Jamie Morris, Brian Jones and most of all Debby Applegate for helping me think through the complex issues we present to new Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy. I look forward to hearing from her and we would be delighted to meet with her and other representatives of the Pulitzer board.

The entire letter is reprinted here.

Current and Upcoming Biographies on Film Tackle a Wide Range of Subjects

Whether doing their own research, using the perspective of those close to their subjects, relying on existing print biographies, or combining elements of all three, biographical filmmakers can take a variety of tacks as they craft cinematic portraits of a person’s life. Their biggest decision, of course, is whether to go the documentary route or create a biopic, with the potential interest in the subject—and available funding—influencing the choice. While the Hollywood treatment of a subject’s life can mean huge box office sales and perhaps a trip down the red carpet at the Academy Awards—think last year’s Hidden Figures—the increasing number of streaming video outlets and their demand for content has opened up new outlets for biographical films.

TBC’s annual—but far from exhaustive—look at biography on film shows that both cable networks and the streaming giants have recently or will offer soon a number of documentaries. In addition, documentaries will appear on the big screen, along with the more high-profile biopics. Here are some of the biographical offerings of the past few months, ones slated for release soon, and films that are still being shot or are in the planning stages. Go here to learn more about these films.

Pulitzer Stirs Controversy by Awarding the Biography/ Autobiography Prize to Memoirs

By James McGrath Morris

This year the Pulitzer Prize for “a distinguished and appropriately documented biography or autobiography by an American author” was awarded to an author who wrote neither a biography nor an autobiography. In fact, neither did the two finalists in this category. The prizewinner and the finalists all wrote memoirs.

The prize was awarded to The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar. The two finalists were In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi and When Breath Becomes Air by the late Paul Kalanithi.

Further muddying the water was that in 2016 the prize for Biography/Autobiography went to William Finnegan’s memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, and one of the two finalists was also a memoir. The other finalist, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles, was moved by the board to the History category and given that prize.

The Pulitzer Prize board’s selection of memoirs two years running for the Biography/Autobiography category has sparked a debate among biographers. Most believe that memoir is a fundamentally different form of writing about a life in that it does not require any form of documentation, especially the kind of research that often distinguishes biographies.

BIO’s board is requesting to meet with the Pulitzer Prize administrator to discuss the continued commingling of biography, autobiography, and memoir. Currently, the Pulitzer Prize organization is seeking a new administrator, since Mike Pride announced his retirement.

To help sort out this this issue, TBC turned to David Nasaw, the distinguished historian, accomplished biographer, and chairman of the advisory board of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at City University of New York. Nasaw is the author of three biographies: The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst; Andrew Carnegie; and The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy. The latter two were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in the Biography/Autobiography category.

James McGrath Morris: You were invited to chair the Biography/Autobiography Committee in 2015 for the prize awarded in April 2016, isn’t that right?
David Nasaw: I was sort of surprised that they gave it to me, if only because I had been a finalist twice but never a winner. Of my three biographies, The Chief was never submitted to the Pulitzer committee, which was a bit of a scandal with Houghton Mifflin. The New York Times wrote about it. Houghton Mifflin just forgot to give them the book. My next two books were finalists. So, everything I say about the Pulitzers should be taken with a grain of salt, because I have a particular history with the prizes.
JMM: Nonetheless, you were chosen as the chairperson for the 2015 awards and you began work by studying the guidelines.
DN: We, the three of us who were on the committee, read the guidelines that we were given very, very, very carefully. And, we interpreted the guidelines as ruling out of competition any memoirs that were not documented. The guidelines that we were given said that for the nonfiction awards it was very important that the materials in these books be appropriately documented. And, they said that there should be some references, footnotes, endnotes, or in the text itself, which gave the reader the confidence that what was being said, or what was being reported, had actually taken place. The Pulitzer guidelines made that abundantly clear.
JMM: Did you have other things by which to guide your deliberations?
DN: In addition to those guidelines, I did a little bit of research, and we all did, on what was an autobiography. How is this defined? And, it was the opinion of the three of us that an autobiography was distinct from a memoir. An autobiography is the writing of a life by the person who lived that life. It does not necessarily have to be cradle-to-grave, but it is written to show how influences of place and time, childhood, adolescence, parenthood, affect the coming-to-age, and the activities, character, personality, and achievements of the adult. It is, in other words, a biography written by the person who is the subject of that biography.

It was our understanding that a memoir is a piece of a life, a moment of a life, a part of a life, and it is not documented. There is no corroborating material, there are no additional interviews, there are no newspaper articles, and there is no context provided. A memoir is a work—as the title makes clear—of memory. Autobiography and biographies are not works of memory.
JMM: What did you do then?
DN: So, we made our determinations clear to the administrator, who was in contact with us. And, we let it be known that after studying and applying the guidelines, we were not considering 30 percent or 40 percent of the books (I don’t know the exact number) that had been submitted under this category. When we finished our deliberations, we were asked to write a report. In it, we explained how we had made our decisions.

Twice afterwards I wrote to the administrator of the prize and I said, “We consider this very important, that the Pulitzer board has to make a decision as to what it’s going to do.”
JMM: What can it do?
DN: We recommended a number of changes to the Pulitzer board to remedy the situation we had encountered. It could establish memoir as a separate category; it could add memoir to the Biography/Autobiography category, so it’s Autobiography/Memoir/Biography; or, it could let publishers know that memoirs should be submitted in the general Nonfiction category. Whatever it decided to do, we argued against it continuing to accept “memoir” nominations in the Autobiography/Biography category because we thought that other jurors would do as we had done, would read the guidelines as we had read them, and not consider the memoir submissions for the prize.
JMM: Then the subsequent selections in 2016 and 2017 must have been a shock?
DN: You can imagine my surprise when, the following year, a book that we would not even have considered for the award, given our reading of Finnegan’s book, was given the prize. And the Stiles book, which was a biography, was moved out of the category, into History. And the second runner-up was a memoir. The following year, this year, there were no autobiographies or biographies. The prize was given to another memoir, and again the runners-up were memoirs.

So, I, having been a judge, I’m not saying the jurors were wrong to do this, I would never say that. But I will say that the guidelines are so written that one committee could read them in a way that appears to be almost diametrically opposed to the way the other committees read them. There’s got to be something wrong there.
JMM: If you were made emperor of the Pulitzer Prize, what would you do to fix this?
DN: I’d simply make a category for memoir. When these categories were first designed, there were very few memoirs. The committee has adjusted all the other awards, certainly all the journalism awards.
JMM: Very often they have.
DN: On a regular basis. Why can’t it pay the same attention to the arts and letters awards?
JMM: And you would be okay with keeping autobiography and biography together as one?
DN: Sure. Sure. And, if the Pulitzer board doesn’t want to do that, then it should add memoir to that list. The fact that Amazon puts memoir into the same category as autobiography and biography doesn’t mean that we should do the same. There has historically been a difference between autobiography and memoir. And a memoir, as we know, is not in the same genre, I don’t think, as biography.
JMM: I was a judge recently on the Western Writers of American prize for best biography. I took out a memoir from the pile of books I was to judge because I didn’t see how you could compare it to biography.
DN: That’s exactly what we did for the 2015 awards. And, I assume from looking at the judging, that’s what had happened earlier.
JMM: When you think of presidential autobiographies, they have a staff who uses all these memoirs and calendars to get the dates right. Their autobiographies may be self-serving, but still, they are biographies of their lives.
DN: Yeah. So, I don’t know what’s going on. I think it is an extraordinary disservice to memoir and to biography. Because these are separate literary genres. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. And again, memoirs are important enough as a genre in the twenty-first century, that they should have their own award.

Conference Preview: James Atlas in Conversation with Patricia Bosworth

By James Atlas

and Patricia Bosworth will discuss breaking the rules of biography and making it work anyway.

In a panel called “Biography and Style,” James Atlas . . .

Patricia Bosworth (“Patti,” as she is known to her wide circle of friends) has been a vivid presence on the New York literary scene for as long as I can remember—which is beginning to be a very long time. Her parties, held in a book- and art-filled apartment in Hell’s Kitchen that looks as if it had time-traveled from the West Village of the 1920s, are the kind where you walk in and want to talk to everyone in the room at once. Some of them are high-profile—I have spotted Dick Cavett and Judy Collins, among other “notables,” as we call them in Chicago; others were mere “writers,” but some of the most interesting ones in town. They are the kind of parties where the host has to flick the lights on and off in order to remind guests to leave.

What’s the draw? I once moderated a panel on biography in some gilded Pittsburgh auditorium with Patti, who had written a fine biography of Brando for the Penguin Lives series, and two other Penguin alums, Wayne Koestenbaum (Warhol) and Bobbie Ann Mason (Elvis). The auditorium was packed (if you want to get an audience, leave New York), and though it was some years ago now, I remember her making the culture-hungry crowd laugh and laugh at her descriptions of Brando’s outlandish behavior.

She is as fun to be with one-on-one as in front of 600 people, at once brassy and vulnerable, warm and entertainingly direct. So it is with her books: the biographies of Jane Fonda and Montgomery Clift radiate insight and empathy; the memoirs are tragic but also manage to capture the vanity of the Actors Studio where she apprenticed for a stage career in the 1950s.

Patti’s most admirable trait is her candor. At the party for her latest book, The Men in My Life, she stood up at the podium and spoke of the suicides of her brother and father with a matter-of-factness that took her well-wishers by surprise: You can’t just talk about these things in public. But she did, and I’m sure she will—about that and much, much more—when I interview her at the BIO conference in Boston this spring. Don’t miss it.   

Finalists Announced for Hazel Rowley Prize

The 2017 Hazel Rowley Prize Committee has chosen three finalists for BIO’s award for the best proposal for a first biography. They are, in alphabetical order:

  • Eric M. Nishimoto, for Arthur’s War, the story of his uncle, Arthur Nishimoto, a volunteer in the segregated, all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team that fought in Europe during WWII, becoming the most decorated unit in U.S. history.
  • Diana Parsell, for A Great Blooming, the biography of Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, an intrepid late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century American traveler to Asia, who had the idea to plant Japanese cherry trees in Washington, D.C., and made it happen.
  • Jeffrey Lawrence Yastine, for Battle the Wind: Elmer and Lawrence Sperry, father and son inventors and aircraft pioneers from the first half of the twentieth century, whose legacy lives on in the technology we take for granted today.
     The final judging is being done by distinguished biographers Blake Bailey and Amanda Vaill. The winner will be announced prior to the BIO conference in May and will receive the prize there. The winner receives a $2,000 prize, a careful reading from at least one established agent, a year’s membership in BIO, and publicity through the BIO website, The Biographers Craft, and other outlets.
The members of the Hazel Rowley Prize Committee are Susan Butler, Jennifer Cockburn, Cathy Curtis, Kavita Das, Deirdre David, Gayle Feldman, Dean King, and Roy Schreiber.

BIO Conference Set for May in Boston, Offers a Wide Variety of Programming and Networking Opportunities

On May 19–21, the annual BIO Conference returns to Boston, where the organization held its first gathering in 2010. The conference will offer research workshops, a full day of panels, numerous networking opportunities, a conversation between two highly respected biographers, and a keynote address by the 2017 BIO Award winner, whose name will be revealed in February.

“This year’s program is bound to please the membership,” said James McGrath Morris, co-chair of the Program Planning Committee. “The wide variety of topics, terrific panelists, and workshop leaders is both a testimony to the hard work of the program committee and to the excitement generated by our annual conference. If you are a biographer, or aspire to be one, you’ll want to be in Boston.”

Registration for the conference is scheduled to begin on February 1. Current BIO members will receive an email with a link to the registration site to take advantage of the early-bird discount, which runs through February 20. For more information on the agenda and panelists, go here.

Biography Beyond Borders Panelists Shine Light on Different Aspects of Biography and History

unnamedMore than two dozen distinguished biographers from the United States and Europe met to talk about their work on  November 4-5 at a conference co-sponsored by BIO and the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing. The weekend-long conference, called Biography Beyond Borders, a colloquium on American and European biography, took place in Oxford and London and included a pre-conference lecture by Carla Kaplan and a keynote address by Hermione Lee. Her Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life won BIO’s Plutarch Award for best biography of 2014.

Last month, TBC featured photos from the weekend sent by consulting editor, past president, and BIO co-founder James McGrath Morris. He called the colloquium “a remarkable moment in our organization’s history. Biographers from around Europe broke intellectual and literary bread with their American colleagues in the storied setting of Oxford.” Morris added, “Almost all the credit for putting together this remarkable gathering goes to BIO’s vice president, Deirdre David.” Plans are now underway for another such meeting in 2018.

To read recaps of the panel discussions and some comments from some of the BIO members who toured two historic homes before the colloquium, go here.

BIO Announces Panelists for Biography Beyond Borders

unnamedBiography Beyond Borders, a colloquium on American and European biography,
will feature 29 distinguished biographers from across the United States and
Europe. In alphabetical order, they are: James Atlas, Betty Boyd-Caroli, Anne de
Courcy, Natalie Dykstra, Robert Douglas-Farihurst, Gayle Feldman, Rebecca
Fraser, Anne C. Heller, Carla Kaplan, Dennis Kersten, Robert Lacey, Zachary
Leader, Andrew Lownie, Jana Wohlmuth Markupova, Iwan Morgan, James
McGrath Morris, Joanny Moulin, Catherine Reef, Harriet Reisen, Jane Ridley,
Anne Boyd Rioux, Carl Rollyson, Max Saunders, Anne Sebba, Will Swift,
Maryam Thirriard, Amanda Vaill, Qunicy Whitney, and Sonja D. Williams. You
can read their biographies here.

Presented by BIO in collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at
Oxford, Biography Beyond Borders will take place on Saturday, November 5. The
lunchtime keynote speaker will be the 2014 BIO Plutarch Award Best Biography
winner and director of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, Hermione Lee.
The $100 fee for the colloquium also includes a Friday afternoon lecture and
reception at the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College, London,
featuring Carla Kaplan as the speaker. Her lecture is titled, “‘Something to Offend Everyone’: The Muckraking Life of Jessica Mitford.” In addition, anyone who wants to go on the BIO November 3 group tour of the Jacobean home of Rudyard Kipling and romantic Scotney Castle with royal guide Harold Brown and Will Swift should email Swift. Learn more about the tours and the entire weekend and register here.