Is The Biography A Work Of Fact Or Fiction? Musings From The Key West Literary Seminar

Jan 13, 2013

The work of a biographer might seem straightforward enough.  Although the general public might consider the genre a sub-category of nonfiction writing, the best works transcend that title, and stand apart as a class of their own.  Biographies contain facts and historical documentation about the life of particular subject, and in this way meet the criteria for nonfiction.  In a talk at the Key West Literary Seminar on Saturday, however, acclaimed biographer Jay Parini declared, “All biography is a work of fiction.  It's an illusion of a life that may relate to reality.”

How can this be?  

Jay Parini, Judith Thurman, Brenda Wineapple, and James Atlas, four acclaimed contemporary biographers, participated in a chat on the subject.  Speaking to the audience, the group acknowledged the slant that an author ultimately has to take when concocting a narrative stringing together all the anecdotes of a life, all the while keeping the story compelling.  This conscious decision is the force that either massages the facts to this side or that, and keeps the book from being a bland inventory of actions.  Indeed, it is the difference between a story and a plot.

The key factor to a successful biography is to keep the interpretation of a life as poetic and faithful as possible.

Towards the end of the chat a question came from the audience about the ethics of interviewing family members and friends of the deceased.  Is there not certain amount of butt-kissing involved in forging relationships with these parties in hopes of getting interviews and access to documents?  How can you make sure that your actions don't cross the ethical point of no return?

If you have the right intentions and passion, oftentimes this butt-kissing will flow naturally from you to them.  After all, if you are writing a biography it is very likely that you have exclusively dedicated years of your life to the subject, and you are heavily invested in the results.  As for going too far, it is something that you have to be mindful of, and it is easy to keep in under control when the intentions are transparent and true.

The key thing to remember, Brenda Wineapple reminded us, is that it is a two-way street.  The person that you are interviewing is also doing quite a bit of enchantment, and they very likely have an agenda of their own.  Hemingway's wife, she recalled, told authorities that Ernest way cleaning his gun because she didn't want anyone to know he committed suicide.

Biographies, it turns out, are much like daily life.

We must pick and choose which facts to consider, which facts to ignore, and most importantly how much weight we assign to each.  The hardest thing to consider is exactly how much trust do we place in the people with whom we interact.  The smallest change this or that way can lead to a dramatically different interpretation of events, and ultimately a different reality that we perceive.

Never mind the facts-- we live out our own fictions.