2017 BIO Conference – Biography and Style

With the unexpected absence of Patricia Bosworth, James McGrath Morris pinch hit for her and led a conversation with James Atlas on the elusive nature of style in biographical writing. Voice and tone play into it, Atlas said, though tone is “an indescribable quality.”

One of Atlas’s mentors while trying to develop his own style was the essayist and critic Dwight Macdonald, who reviewed drafts of Atlas’s biography of Delmore Schwartz. Macdonald was brutal in assessing Atlas’s academic approach to the subject, calling the prose “pretentious,” “cliché,” and “verbose,” while imploring Atlas to “leave the reader alone” and “spur your Pegasus to a livelier gait.” Macdonald called Atlas’s “academic tics” part of a “stylistic disease” and suggested he put more of himself into the writing.

Atlas said he also learned something about style while studying at Oxford with James Joyce biographer Richard Ellman. Open any page of the Joyce biography, Atlas said, and “you will find some kind of sly aside…or guarded, veiled insight about Joyce’s erratic behavior or some comic moment.” Ellman is nowhere in the narrative, yet those elements of his writing helped define a definite style.

Another part of style is choosing which details to include to illustrate a scene. Atlas talked about the impact of “painterly” writing, saying, “When we talk about style, we’re talking about how to achieve that…effect, of being the voice in your book that walks you through the story.” In part, Atlas said, “style is being yourself, just as you would be in a novel, or any other piece of writing.

Morris later picked up on the comparison to fiction, saying that he borrows stylistic devices from novels he reads—even Harlequin murder mysteries. That can mean ending a chapter with a cliffhanger, or repeating a few words within a quote for emphasis—something Morris said he picked up from Dickens. Some of his other suggestions for developing style included writing about what you want to read and having a trusted “true reader” go over the manuscript to help find sections that don’t work. And style, ultimately, must serve the story, not be a distraction.

Reflecting the “painterly” aspect of style, Morris sees the information gathered while researching a subject as “a tray holding paint.” The author’s task is to choose a little bit of the right colors from that palette at the right time, instead of hurling all the facts on the canvas. Using quotes in an effective way also shapes style. Morris said he tries to use them judiciously, to express an emotional tonality that he as the author can’t express himself.

Offering some closing thoughts on style, Atlas encouraged writers to read the books that inspired them, and find out what techniques those authors used that were so effective. He added that books should be engaging to read, even if the subject’s story is at times a sad one. Morris said, “As biographers, we’re better off stylistically if we get in touch with our emotional bones rather than our rational bones.”