On June 1, new BIO President Will Swift and Vice President Deirdre David began their two-year terms. Joining them as officers are Marc Leepson, who is returning as treasurer, and Dean King as secretary. You can read more about the current and outgoing board members here.
In collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at Oxford, housed at Wolfson College and directed by Professor Dame Hermione Lee, Biography International Organization (BIO) is hosting Biography Beyond Borders, a colloquium on American and European biography. The colloquium is 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, November 5. Lee will deliver the afternoon’s keynote address, and distinguished American biographer Carla Kaplan will give lecture the previous evening at the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College, London.
Click here for more information and to register.
In a preview of the BIO Conference panel “Three Ways of Looking at a Subject: Richard Nixon,” moderator John A. Farrell explores the presidential subject with two of the panelists.
Lincoln, we know. The Roosevelts, we get. Of Kennedy, we probably know too much. But the roster of American presidents still presents a few white whales for biographers to chase—chief executives whose lives don’t yield characterization easily. Jefferson has been called a sphinx. Reagan opaque. And then there is Richard Nixon.
The challenge in writing a life of Nixon is not a shortage of material; it’s partly that there is so much: millions of documents and thousands of hours of tape recordings; archives chock-full of videotape from the Vietnam War and Watergate; countless newspaper articles and columns and books about the Tricky Dick of the 1950s, the various New Nixons that ran for president, and the tragic chief executive who went to China, signed an arms deal with the Soviet Union, won a landslide re-election, and resigned in disgrace. The vast sea of material makes fishing for Nixon an arduous task. So does his personality, which aide H. R. Haldeman compared to a piece of quartz, with its many, many facets.
Compounding the difficulty is the polarizing nature of the man, and of his times. For most of his political career, often deliberately, he divided the citizenry into those that loved Nixon, and them that hated him with unyielding passion. He came on the scene as an ally of Joe McCarthy. He implied that Harry Truman was a traitor, and was throughout an unforgiving partisan hatchet man. “If the dry rot of corruption and Communism, which has eaten deep into our body politic during the past seven years, can only be chopped out with a hatchet, let’s call for a hatchet,” he said, campaigning, in 1952.
And his enemies—the liberals, academics, Democrats and journalists who Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew attacked as impudent snobs and effete intellectuals—gave as good as they got.
“The American lower middle class in the person of this man moved to engrave into the history of the United States, as the voice of America, its own faltering spirit, its self-pity and its envy…its whole peevish, resentful whine,” the liberal New York columnist Murray Kempton wrote.
For the upcoming BIO conference in Richmond, three recent Nixon biographers—Evan Thomas, Being Nixon; Jeffrey Frank, Ike and Dick; and Irwin Gellman, The Contender and The President and the Apprentice—will join me on a Saturday afternoon panel, and talk about our turns as Captain Ahab. I quizzed two of them about the hunt last month.
Q: What special challenge does a polarizing figure like Nixon present? Is the historic record accurate, or does it reflect the political bias about Nixon from his era? How do you navigate these shoals?
Jeffrey Frank: The challenge is not to start off regarding him as a ‘polarizing’ figure, but rather to try to see him plainly—to let his life and times guide.
Evan Thomas: I worked for The Washington Post for 24 years, and…Nixon was the devil—an evil figure, corrupter of the Constitution, Tricky Dick. That is pretty much the view that has taken hold in the public generally, certainly in the so-called liberal establishment.
The Watergate era record makes Nixon look like a madman. The fuller record is more complex.
His reputation and standing will never escape Watergate, nor should it. But I wanted to humanize him. I tried to look at Nixon from the inside out. To understand his own sense of outsider-ness. To see what it was like, literally, to be Nixon.
“I can’t pretend to know with anything approaching certainty what Nixon was really feeling and thinking. I’m not sure Nixon himself did. He was, as far as I could tell from the record he left, remarkably un-self aware. He brooded constantly—about his enemies—and he felt deep insecurity. But he did not know his own weaknesses, not in a way he could control.
I once asked (Nixon aide) Brent Scowcroft if Nixon could see himself. No, answered Scowcroft, “but sometimes, I think, he took a peek.” That sounds about right to me.
Q: Is there a difference in how the generations of Americans view Nixon?
Jeffrey Frank: I’ve found that the Boomers still pretty much loathe him, although some try to see his better side. The Millennials see him as a cartoon —the Evil President, a little comic, too.
Q: After publication, did you find critics and readers open to your interpretation, or were they bound by their own political viewpoint?
Jeffrey Frank: I wondered whether some would see me as too sympathetic to Nixon, but in fact I think most were pretty open to what I was doing—not to sound pompous but trying to be, ahem, fair and balanced.
Evan Thomas: A mixed or somewhat forgiving picture of Nixon is not going to satisfy the large population of Nixon haters, especially those whose careers have been wrapped up in the view of Nixon as Monster. Since those same people were likely to review my book, I feared I would take my lumps, and I did. But I never had so much fun writing a book.”
Q: What are you hoping to learn from the other members of our panel?
Jeffrey Frank: I’m interested in hearing how the picture of Nixon began to change as other biographers drew closer to him—learning more about him, good and bad. Did he become more a “rounded” figure, and therefore more interesting, or did he simply seem to remain an unwavering partisan, and therefore increasingly tedious? Or a little of both?
John A. Farrell’s single-volume biography of Nixon will be published early next year.
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.
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.)
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.
Both would-be authors and seasoned writers alike might have looked at a book jacket and wondered if the blurbs on the back really make a difference in propelling sales. And if they have never given or sought out a blurb, they may have wondered how the process works. To some writers, it’s not a pretty sight.
Writing for The Millions in 2011, novelist Bill Morris offered these descriptions of blurbing: “suspect,” “vaguely sleazy,” and “a sweaty little orgy of incest.” In the years since, other writers have expressed their displeasure with giving and asking for blurbs. Some authors have even suggested the process is corrupt, with agents writing blurbs and asking famous authors to put their names to the canned praise. Other writers are increasingly questioning the efficacy of blurbs in the age of social media, when readers are more apt to follow the recommendations of friends or the masses at sites like Goodreads. Still, blurbing does not seem to be going away, so BIO turned to several members and found some recent articles on blurbs to help authors navigate the blurbing maze.
(A side note: By most accounts, the word blurb was coined by humorist Gelett Burgess in his 1907 book Are You a Bromide? Burgess created a character he called Miss Belinda Blurb, who sang the praises of the book on the cover. But the practice of garnering quotes from other authors to adorn one’s book jacket predates Miss Blurb’s debut.)
How important are blurbs? BIO board member Will Swift said, “Blurbs are important in that they encourage newspapers, bloggers, and magazines to review the book. These reviews help drive sales. They may not be as important to book buyers, but they don’t hurt.” BIO member Irv Gellman had a slightly different take, saying, “If the book hits well, [blurbs] can probably help you. If the book doesn’t hit, it probably doesn’t matter.” Another BIO board member, Kate Buford, noted that since some people find the blurbing process “dubious,” blurbs might not be too helpful for a hardcover book. But with a paperback edition, “blurbs from actual reviews can be used and are more effective.”
Part of the blurbing process is knowing who to approach. Publishers, editors, and agents will sometimes draw up a list of possible blurbers, especially if those authors also have ties to them. Writers often reach out to friends first, especially if they have expertise in the book’s topic. Often, with this arrangement there is an expectation, if not explicit statement, of reciprocity. Moving outside that circle, Gellman recommends finding someone who is nationally or internationally known or an expert in the field, though if the expert is unknown, his or her blurb might not be as valuable. And don’t be afraid to aim for the stars with your requests. For his The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952–1961, Gellman asked for and got a blurb from former Secretary of State George Shultz, even though Gellman figured he had “a snowball’s chance in hell” of landing him. Continue Reading…
Jonathan Segal received the second annual BIO Editorial Excellence Award on November 4 at an event titled “How Great Biographies Get Made and Why They Matter.” Carl Bernstein presented Segal with the award, and the evening featured a panel discussion with several biographers who have worked with Segal. TBC will present highlights of that discussion and Segal and Bernstein’s remarks in the December issue. The event was co-sponsored by the New York Society Library.
A video of the evening is available here.