Let me begin with a premise — As a literary form, biography appeals to many readers precisely because it avoids lots of thorny discussions and difficult challenges about the meaning of a text. Modernist and post modernist literature want to disrupt the reader, it wants to challenge us with difficult questions about authorship and authority and truth and reality.
Biography is understood to be objective, to be based on facts, to be reliable and true; in biography, the author’s role is quite clear. To read a biography is to engage with a stable and authoritative text, a story with a beginning, middle and end, a tale that promises to be, in whatever way, relatable. In 1939, during a time when biography was considered still “a young art” Virginia Woolf wrote an essay examining the genre, and in it she declares, “The novelist is free. The biographer is tied.” Woolf writes that biography “imposes conditions, and those conditions are that it must be based upon fact.”
But these conditions also create the biographer’s dilemma, and the dilemma is this — how can biographical truth ever be ascertained?
We look to biography for more than a life in writing—we look for lessons, heroes, guidance, warnings. As Paula Backscheider notes, “Biography explicates the symbolism of lives, can turn lives into symbols, and is itself always a socially symbolic act.”
I began this talk with a quote from Virginia Woolf and I’m tempted to end it by citing Scott Donaldson, who advises, “Never write a biography of someone whose children are still alive.” Or I could quote Meryl Seacrest, who titled her memoir after the first rule of biography: Shoot the Widow. But I don’t want that cynicism to be the message that you take away from this talk. Rather, I believe that the broader meaning surrounding the biographer’s dilemma comes from precisely the complexity of these problems and from the questions they raise. Biography, that socially symbolic act is also an act of life writing. We read biographies to measure our own lives against others, and when we follow the trail of a biographer’s dilemma, we discover that the lives of others can not be so easily known, so easily understood, and in knowing this, we can expand the possibilities for meaning of our own lives.
If you’d like to see s video of the full talk, including the question and answer session, it’s here: