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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Perils of Biography

Are You Sure?

Today’s New York Times brings word that members of the Schultz family are not happy with a new biography of Charles — the creator of Peanuts. ("Biography of ‘Peanuts’ Creator Stirs Family" is the headline). Apparently author Charles Michaelis described a darker, more troubled, more unhappy man than members of his family recall. The reporter who wrote the piece mentions Janet Malcom — a frequent New Yorker contributor who brings a sophisticated knowledge of psychology to her pieces. Malcolm had once famouly talked about how a reporter is a betrayer — trying to gain the confidence of her subject not as a friend, but in order to dissect him or her in print. In the current New York Review of Books, a new work of Malcolm’s gets a rave review, and it, too, centers on how biography is an interplay between the subject, the author, and even all of the sources about the author. The result is not so much "truth" as efforts at truth, framed by all of our slippery subjectivities.

The question for us, then, is how we apply this to books for younger readers? Traditionally the assumption has been that readers first need a basic pathway of clear fact and engaging narrative. A reader gets started by learning that Teddy Roosevelt was a dynamic personality who loved animals, played with his kids, and was a lively President who symbolized the Turn of the Century moment of energy and progress. Only later on will a middle grade or high school reader need to consider his views on race, on woman, and have to weigh out how that changes our image of him, and his time. Fair enough. But, as I mentioned in the post about Monster and the unreliable narrator, why is it that in our YA and even middle grade fiction we are so accepting of multiple points of view, of a narrator who is not trustworthy, of the slippery nature of truth without even raising those questions about nonfiction? To put it a different way, why do we confine psychology to fiction? 

The great treat of reading Janet Malcolm’s work is that her relentless intelligence is omnidirectional — she examines her subject, her sources, her self. Her writing is clear, easy to follow, and not solipsistic. How about this, readers, lets play pretend, alternate history: how would any of you write a YA biography in a Malcolmesque way? Take a person you like, you dislike, you would like kids to emulate, you want to warn kids against, then how would you tell the life of that person while also keeping track of your stake in the storytelling, your own envy, or yearning to be like, or dreams of glory that are tied up in why you want to talk about that person? Ideas?


  1. Monica Edinger says:

    This makes me think of last year’s Houdini biography (Escape!) by Sid Fleischman. I loved the way he brought his own experiences with magic and Houdini’s wife into his telling of Houdini’s life. Another one I liked a lot from last year was Robert Lipsyte’s Heroes of Baseball where his love of the game was so palpable even as he made clear why these particular guys (not necessarily heroic in some eyes) were his particular heroes. It seems these both worked so well because the authors were passionate about the topic as well as the individuals being portrayed. Not sure if it is what you are getting at, but both were books where the authors were very visible in the storytelling for sure.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I knew Sid’s book, and yes that is part of what I meant. But I am writing about Bill Gates — there are two emotions you can’t help feeling about him: envy, and eagerness to please. So I am asking others, think of someone you could imagine writing about where you would have strong feelings (not necessarily all positive) about that person. How would you do handle that on paper? This is a thought experiment, not a test.

  3. Jeannine Atkins says:

    It’s a stretch, but I’d love to play, for a few moments, that I am Janet Malcolm. My take, which is hasty and not well-informed (hey, this is a blog, not major analysis, right?) is that she stretches the bounds of biography, something I’ll always cheer, and focuses not just on newfound material but on delving into the subject’s interiors. No wonder this is often unwelcome. Who wants to be told they should undergo a bit of therapy, that someone else might know more than they do about their interior life? And after someone dies, it’s not surprising the family will take this “keep out” role.

    But of course the rest of us are pretty fascinated. I don’t see why a YA biographer shouldn’t come across fresh material as well as anyone else, or conduct revealing interviews. I guess if I were to write such a book based on a life, I’d try to let other peoples’ voices, culled from interviews, be in the forefront, but be upfront about how my role as interviewer may have shaped what is revealed. I just read Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill by Jessica Stern (veering off, obviously, from children’s literature) and I admired how Stern seems open about her biases and why the subject intrigues her, then, as she conducts interviews, not only quotes and describes her surroundings, but alludes to her fears, hesitations, and how she tries to separate lies from truths. While the militants she interviews are the main subject, and we’re reading to learn about them, we do get a sense of who is recording and evaluating the material, and that made me better able to analyze it myself. Unlike Malcolm, who apparently thinks of her role as a potential betrayer, Stern stresses that a good interviewer should be empathetic, even with people she fears and despises (but is she telling the truth re that? Talk about slippery.)

    I’ve strayed from the questions, but thanks for posing them!

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    Jeannine has gotten it exactly right — I love the example of Stern and the Militants — the author as betrayer, or, as empathic listener, even to those she finds evil. Bringing that level of self-awareness into how we write for teenagers is exactly what I’m suggesting we consider.