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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

YA Biography — How Does it Differ From Adult Biography?

I am reading Kennethy Lynn’s excellent biogrpahy of Hemingway, not so very long after having made my way through almost all of the existing biographies of J. Edgar Hoover. I am reading the book in two ways: as a book on Hemingway, and as a way to see what adult biography is, and how it differs from what I write for middle grade and YA. It is is easy to see why Lynn’s 1987 book was a pathbreaker. The Hemingway he finds is neither the old hero of Lost Generation masculinity nor the fraud of family and feminist exposure. Lynn has weighed both, and moves past to find –in the evidence from his life and close reading of his work — a figure who combines the suffocating, castrating effect of his mother and the hardy, outdoor, hardworking dad. And in his best work, Hemingway finds perfect expression of this combination of vulnerability and independent strength. A fine book. And yet clearly not what we do.

Here is the key difference: Lynn assumes his readers know Hemingway. He is writing to an audience that already has an image of Hemingway in its mind, has doubtless read much of his fiction, is aware of controversies, knows the players in the pro- and anti- Papa sweepstakes. And now he is going to be the knight, the hero, picking his way through this charged field, settling old debates, gathering the evidence, making it all clear. He is the guide to a field of battle his readers have already visited. We are the opposite, we are bringing people to the site for the first time. That creates a different sort of challenge — we cannot presume knowledge or interest. In one way that means we can skip one issue or another (for example, I didn’t write in any detail on Alger Hiss). Our readers are not coming to us for the latest, greatest, view on every issue around the figure we discuss. But in another, it means we are always looking in two directions — back to the life and times we need to understand, and out to our reader to connect, to make that matter.

In a way, our books are an excercise in judgment — while an adult biographer knows what to cover: everything, we have to select that part of the story of that life that is significant, compelling, engaging, moving, challenging, for our readers. This gets back to my point about art. We have to piece together the package of text, context, images, pacing, design, structure (where to begin, how to move through the life) that will engage, stimulate, and inform the reader. While this is similar to those Brief Lives that are being written for adults, it is fundamentally different from the standard adult biography. Where the key word for the adult biographer might be coverage, depth, or completeness, for us it is selection, evocation, engagement. So in the cluster model, might be nice to compare biographies, to see what each author has selected — and why.


  1. Shirley Budhos says:

    Good point, Marc. As a reader of biography, especially literary biography, I appreciate the author’s understanding that the reader doesn’t require an introduction to the subject, but an in depth coverage of life & achievements & failures. Those biographies I’ve encountered which focus in “educating” the reader are not as interesting or helpful to one who reads the biography after gaining familiarity with the subject’s work.And, of course, the minutia are excessive for YA readers.

  2. Marc, this was a very helpful post, as I’ve tried to discern the difference between MG/YA and “adult” biography. Debora Heligman shared similar insights related to “Charles and Emma” where she focused more on the human side of the Darwins versus engaging in a full-scale discussion of evolution versus religion.