BIO Announces the Robert and Ina Caro Research/Travel Fellowship

In honor of the work of Robert and Ina Caro, Biographers International Organization has set up an annual research and travel fellowship. BIO members with a work in progress can apply to receive funding for research trips to archives or to important settings in their subject’s lives. This fellowship is a reflection of BIO’s ongoing commitment to support authors in writing beautifully contextualized and tenaciously researched biographies.

The Caro Research/Travel Fellowship is restricted to support of works of biography, e.g., not of history, autobiography, or memoir. The application deadline is February 1, 2018. In the spring of 2018, BIO will award either one $5,000 or two $2,500 fellowships, based on the judgment of the following panel: Kate Buford, Deirdre David, and Marc Leepson.

To apply, go here.

First-time Biographers, Apply Now for the Rowley Prize!

BIO is now accepting applications for the 2018 Hazel Rowley Prize. The aim of this prize is to help a first-time biographer of real promise in four ways: through funding (the $2,000 prize); by securing a careful reading from at least one established agent; a year’s membership in Biographers International Organization (BIO); and publicity through the BIO website and The Biographer’s Craft newsletter, among other outlets.

The prize is named in memory of Hazel Rowley (1951–2011), who was born in London, educated in England and Australia, and was a longtime resident of the United States. A BIO enthusiast from its inception, Hazel understood the need for biographers to help each other. The prize named for her will be given for the fourth time at the next BIO conference, in late spring 2018. Judges for the 2018 prize are the distinguished biographers Stacy Schiff and James Atlas.

The prize is open to citizens or permanent residents of the U.S. and Canada who write in English, are working on a biography that has not been commissioned, contracted, or self-published, and who have never published a biography, history, or work of narrative nonfiction. Biography, as defined for this prize, is a narrative of an individual’s life. Although, group biographies and innovative ways of treating lives will be considered. To apply, click here. The deadline for entries is March 1, 2018.

Robert Weil to Receive BIO Editorial Excellence Award

Robert Weil follows Nan Talese, Jonathan Segal, and Robert Gottlieb as a winner of the Editorial Excellence Award.

Robert Weil, editor-in-chief and publishing director of Liveright, an imprint of W. W. Norton, will receive BIO’s fourth annual Editorial Excellence Award on Wednesday, November 8, at the Leon Levy Center for Biography in New York.

Weil’s celebrated publishing career began in 1978 at Times Books. He became senior editor at St. Martin’s Press in 1988; a decade later, he moved to W. W. Norton as executive editor. Named to his present positions in 2011, he is dedicated to editing books of consequence.

Weil will speak on “Biography as Reclamation.” He will be introduced by Annette Gordon-Reed, author of “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination and The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

In addition, a panel of leading biographers, moderated by Linda Gordon (winner of the Bancroft Prize for Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits), will talk about their experience working with Weil. Here is the list of panelists:
  • Ruth Franklin, winner of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award and BIO’s Plutarch Award for Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
  • David Levering Lewis, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 and 2001 for both volumes of his biography of W. E. B. Dubois
  • Max Boot, author of the forthcoming The Road Not Taken: Edward Landsdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam
  • Yunte Huang, winner of the 2011 Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical Book for Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History
This event represents the first collaboration between BIO and the Levy Center for Biography. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. and will be held in the Skylight Room at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, 365 Fifth Avenue. Hors doeuvres and beverages will be served. Tickets are free, but seating is limited, so reservations are essential. Click here to reserve your seat.

Why and How Biographers Write: An Interview with James Atlas

James Atlas’s The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale was published to high praise by Pantheon Books on August 22. As Ron Chernow wrote about the book, “Anyone even remotely interested in the art of biography will be captivated.” In moving and hilarious stories from his own life and his lifelong study of biographers, Atlas—an active BIO member and the celebrated biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, as well as the founding editor and publisher of the acclaimed Penguin Lives and Eminent Lives series of short biographies—recasts the lives, works, and misadventures of fellow biographers from Plutarch and Thomas Carlyle to Michael Holroyd and Judith Thurman and explains how he came to be a biographer and what he has discovered about the “obsessive diggers drawn into this odd profession,” during 40 years of biographical sleuthing and adventures. Anne Heller interviewed him for TBC.

Why were you attracted to biography, James? In your book, you quote Leon Edel: “Biographers are invariably drawn to the writing of biography out of some deeply personal motive.” What was yours?
I didn’t realize until after I had been working as a biographer for a long time that one evenhas motives. I studied with Richard Ellmann at Oxford and decided I wanted to become a biographer myself. At first, I thought I was confronting a simple and basic calculation: Who’s interesting? I chose Delmore [Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet, 1977], who had been dead ten years and whom no one had written a life of. After I finished, I was offered various projects, like Tennessee Williams and Cyril Connolly. And then, of course, there was Edmund Wilson, whose biography I agreed to write when I was in my early 30s. Unlike Delmore, Wilson was at that time near the peak of fame and influence. He had lived a fascinating, even ribald, life and had known everyone worth knowing at the time. He offered a large canvas on which a skilled biographer could draw a map of the intellectual life of twentieth-century America. And yet I procrastinated for five years. It got to the point where whenever I passed my shelf of Wilson’s books I averted my eyes. One problem was that there was a surfeit of published autobiographical material—letters and journals, autobiographical essays and books. To some degree Wilson had done the job himself; I felt that his biographer would mainly be a literary custodian. Then his catalogues of the many women he’d bedded got on my nerves. The detail! Finally, I realized that I didn’t want to write the book. I didn’t have a personal motive for writing it: a compelling connection to the subject.

I have discovered that there are both overt and covert motives for writing about a subject. My books are an example of “overt” motives, where there is a specific biographical and/or factual connection between the biographer and his subject. Delmore Schwartz was the child of Jewish immigrants from Russia, as were my grandparents, and he was a temperamental poet, as I was in my youth. I saw in him many of the experiences and conflicts that I myself had been working through. The same was true of Saul Bellow, my second subject [Bellow: A Biography, 2000], since I was from Chicago and he was part of the cultural context of my growing up. There’s a wonderful Yiddish word, mishpachah, meaning family that’s not your actual blood relatives but that forms your cultural and sociological circle of people. Both Delmore and Bellow were mishpachah. I learned that one of the reasons I picked my subjects was that I wanted answers to my own history.

Now with biographers such as Leon Edel and Richard Ellmann, to take two examples, the connections with their great subjects Henry James and James Joyce were not explicit. They were covert. In both cases the connection was subliminal, emotional, and powerful. For example, Edel and James both suffered from depression. So for me, this idea of finding your subject is in essence a means of finding yourself. When I realized this it opened up the practice of biography for me, both as a writer and as an editor. It helped me to understand what I was doing, what I was looking for.

Can you give me an example of how the idea of motives aided your work?
The most vivid example is about Bellow. I needed to try to understand what impelled him to marry so many times and have so many girlfriends and make such a mess. What need was he trying to address? I was looking for his motive. One night I was reading Heinz Kohut, the great psychiatrist and the founder of self-psychology, whom Bellow briefly saw for therapy. I came across his explanation of narcissism. He described the narcissist’s need almost to wake himself up, to try to fill a lurking sense of emptiness. I was electrified. I thought, “That’s it!” That was what Bellow was doing with his wives and lovers. Training oneself to think broadly about one’s subject and not just collect the historical data—you might say training oneself to intervene in the story—that’s where the energy is for me, that’s where biography comes alive.
Having made a stunning survey of biography past and present—reading about them is one of the great pleasures of your book—and having written two biographies of your own, how do you gauge the benefits and drawbacks of writing about the living—someone you know or get to know—versus the dead?
That’s a good question. In my case, I wish I had waited until Bellow died, so that the issues wouldn’t have been so incendiary—his sex life and so on. But ideally, if you have empathy, common sense, shrewdness, and good judgment, you can create a vivid biography of a person you come to know, the classic example being [James] Boswell and [Samuel] Johnson, although Boswell did wait until Johnson was dead to publish his book. In our own day, Patrick French, the biographer of V. S. Naipaul, managed to create a brilliant portrait of Naipaul while he was still alive. What’s amazing about this feat is that Naipaul is widely regarded as a terrible human being. How did French do it? He did it by disallowing judgment. Apart from the fact that he is a great biographer and writer, French’s most important quality was that he could write about Naipaul’s grotesque behavior—toward his dying wife, for example—and somehow make everything clear and understandable. His objectivity, tempered by empathy, made for a portrait that was riveting. The biographer, while being driven by a passion, still has to stand aside. James Joyce said that the artist stands apart, paring his fingernails. The biographer should stand apart and yet enter deeply into a subject’s life.

You discuss the compelling nature of research—one more letter to be found, one more detail to pin down. When is enough enough?
There is definitely an end point, but one doesn’t always know where it is. You have to sit down and write. You can keep researching while you write. But at some point you feel a sense of weariness: I’ve heard enough from you. Now we’re going to hear from me.

You quote Dr. Johnson as saying, “No species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation. I esteem biography, as giving us what comes near to ourselves, what we can use.” How is biography useful? 
Biography is useful because it shows us what a human being is, who we are, and why we do the things we do. A great biography illuminates character. Why is Ellmann’s [James] Joyce one of the preeminent modern biographies? Because it gives us the cultural context of Joyce’s life and elucidates the greatness of his writing.  It is itself masterfully written. But most of all, it evokes Joyce’s humanity in all the little details. There is a great scene in the book in which Joyce is having trouble with his landlord in Trieste. In that period, Joyce was insisting that he be called “the Bard.” Ellmann writes, “The Bard had no money.” So beautiful—the irony and the affection it expresses for its subject.

You write that like other art forms, biography is bound by the conventions of the moment. Are there any approaches to writing a life that you’re sorry have fallen from favor?
Yes: the writing itself. Some of the great seventeenth- and eighteenth-century biographies are beautifully written. And so are biographical works by Holroyd, Ellmann, E. M. Forster, George Painter’s [MarcelProust.  I sometimes think we’ve forgotten to pay enough attention to the craft of writing. Biographies should be as much written as poetry or fiction.

Are your going to write another biography?
No.

Here is James Atlas’s abbreviated reading list for practicing biographers:

  • Harold Nicolson, The Development of English Biography
  • André Maurois, Aspects of Biography
  • Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer
  • Vasari, The Lives of the Artists
  • Boccaccio, Life of Dante
  • Lord Macaulay, Essay on Boswell’s Life of Johnson
  • Richard Ellmann, James Joyce
  • Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequaled Self
 You can read an excerpt from The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Talepublished in The New Yorker. You can also read an interview with Atlas in the New York Times.

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.

Ruth Franklin Wins 2017 Plutarch Award

Ruth Franklin received the 2017 Plutarch Award from Plutarch Award Committee chair John A. Farrell.

Ruth Franklin won the 2017 Plutarch Award for Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. Members of Biographers International Organization selected the winning book, which was announced at the Eighth Annual BIO Conference on May 20 at Emerson College in Boston. The Shirley Jackson bio had previously won several other honors, most notably the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.

Offering her thanks for the award, Franklin said, “It’s really humbling to receive an award named after Plutarch.” She said that before this year’s event in Boston, she looked back at her notes from past conferences and realized how much she had learned from so many of the people with her in the room. Being part of BIO and a women’s biographers group in New York has shown her, “We aren’t in any way alone in what we do.”

At her first BIO Conference in 2014, Franklin said, she was too shy and intimidated to introduce herself to the big-name biographers she found herself surrounded by; she just “gazed adoringly” at Stacy Schiff, that year’s BIO Award winner, which Franklin joked might have led Schiff to believe she was a stalker. Now, Franklin is preparing an interview with Schiff for the Paris Review. She said she and Schiff discussed how there’s no instruction manual for biographers, everyone approaches the craft a little differently, and that biographers “all have to learn from each other.”

The Plutarch Award Committee originally chose ten semi-finalists before selecting four finalists for the 2017 prize. The other finalists were:

  • Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey by Frances Wilson
  • Hitler: Ascent, 1889–1939 by Volker Ullrich, translated by Jefferson Chase
  • Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams by Louisa Thomas

You can see the complete list of this year’s semi-finalists and past winners here

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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.