The Dangers of Writing Biography

A life is a string of moments, messy, tangled, knotted, a confused jumble of events and incidents, feelings, insights, blindness: a chaotic whole. The artefacts of a life—letters, journals, writings, photographs, interviews, even the memories of others—are nothing more than the pieces of a puzzle.

The biographer’s task is to make a space where a few ideas and images may be so arranged that a reader will have some sense of the life of the subject. However, the task of narrating is not only complex; it’s dangerous. There is the danger of inaccurately –or worse, improperly—emphasising, diminishing, ignoring, magnifying, or distorting.

In addition, the reader of biography should not forget that the biographer is also present in the narrative. There is a built-in insecurity the reader cannot entirely shake. As Janet Malcolm, a journalist who has undertaken several studies of the relationship between the biographer and his subject, weighs in: “In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios—there are none. This is the way it is. Only in non-fiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.”

In other words, in a biography, we almost never know the truth of what happened. Even though the biographer strives to present facts in an objective manner, the words are still funnelled through his own character, nature, attitudes and opinions, shaped by his own particular experience and times. As Malcolm says, “each person who sits down to write faces not a blank page but his own vastly overfilled mind”.

When families and estates are involved, things are murkier still. The posthumous record may be deliberately incomplete, suppressed, even altered, by friends and family.

The Case of Sylvia Plath

The poet Sylvia Plath left a marvellous written record, the artefacts of her short life. There were the brilliant poems, for which she’s known, as well as a novel and several short stories. She also left behind journals and letters. And then there’s the testimony of those who knew her.

In the aftermath of her terrible death in 1963, her husband Ted Hughes admits to having destroyed one journal and hiding another. In the view of some, Hughes held journalists and biographers hostage from her death to the end of his life in 1998. Even now, a decade later, the Plath estate expects full editorial compliance as the price of quotation. While Hughes maintained a dignified silence most of the time, agents of the estate have taken a vehement position with regard to each biography, memoir, article and critical essay that appeared. This attitude created a furore around Plath, her writings and her life. Critics, academics, feminists each have a view.

In The Silent Woman, her insightful 1991 meditation on the problem of biography, Malcolm examines these issues in depth, intentionally resolving very little.

A Tangle of Competing Viewpoints

Jacqueline Rose, another of Plath’s interpreters, says, “My position is that you’re left with a tangle of competing viewpoints, and if you try to make sense of it you’ll go wrong one way or another. You have to live with the anxiety that such uncertainty generates.”

More than fifteen years since Malcolm and Rose published their books on Plath, this uncertainty remains.

Biography is an attempt to make whole the artefacts of a life, but it must not be mistaken for the disorderly actuality that is a life. It is merely a hint, an approximation, a shadow, something weak and pale, even in the hands of the finest biographer.

Janet Malcolm at a Chelsea reading

Janet Malcolm at a Chelsea Reading

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