What makes a satisfying biography?

I was listening to Gideon Coe’s BBC6Music programme on BBCSounds, as I do most days, only for a change I actually listened to the Late Night Book Club segment which he includes from time to time. With apologies to Mr Coe and his no doubt fascinating guests, I generally skip past it because they’re discussing a book about a topic I’m not that bothered about (a band I was never that into, or the Northern Soul scene in Macclesfield one memorable Spring) and I’m there for the music, man. This time, however, it was a biography of an artist I have reasonable familiarity with (including, crucially, some of the bad bits) but have never been what you might call a big fan of, just an occasional listener. In other words I had enough of an interest to listen to the discussion but nothing to lose if there were revelations ahead that would put me off. I’m not going to say who it was (it’s no longer available on Sounds anyway) because I mean no disrespect to the biographer, but you could hear the shine in their eyes as they talked about their subject. It made me wonder what makes someone write a biography, and then I started thinking about why people read biographies (and autobiographies, and memoirs) and why I almost never do.

In my late teens I read biographies of Che Guevara, Billy Bragg, and The Clash, which I’m sure you could have guessed, and I’ve read the odd rock star autobiography since (Morrissey and Chrissie Hynde both of which I wrote about a few years ago, and Bruce Dickinson as pictured above), not to mention Anthony Trollope’s, but the only other biography I can think of that I’ve read is the Richard Ingrams book about William Cobbett. I admired William Cobbett from the little I knew about him at that time, and maybe with him and Che Guevara I already felt there was enough of importance or interest in the work they’d done, that their being revealed as useless fathers for instance couldn’t take away from that. The biography added new information and different perspectives, without diminishing the achievements I already knew about.

So why would you write a biography? Because you’re a shining-eyed fanboy. Because you have an axe to grind or want to prove a point. Because you think other people will be interested and therefore there’s a market for it, but you have no particular stake in the subject yourself. There are problems with all of those approaches, I think, or there can be.

Bias is everywhere, it’s hard to get away from. I’m reading a history at the moment which has reached the Middle Ages and the author seems unduly lenient with the Mongols, justifying every wholesale slaughter of a town’s inhabitants while (rightly) condemning similar behaviour from Crusaders. The partisan biography can be similarly unsatisfying to a reader who doesn’t share their enthusiasm, skating over or playing down dubious behaviour and unpleasant traits. On the other hand the frank portrayal of them can be disappointing if it downgrades a reader’s view of a hero, or off-putting to someone who wasn’t expecting them and didn’t intend to sit down and read the detailed chronicle of a selfish alcoholic or serial adulterer. The selective evidence of the biography attempting to portray its subject as a pioneer in something we hadn’t previously thought of them as being involved in starts to feel strained quite quickly (Frederica Bloggs was fifty years ahead of her time, look, if you squint it sort of looks like she was a precursor to this trend she’d never heard of), and the hurried cash-in on a newly-famous person doesn’t have time to be particularly in depth.

Which brings us, I suppose, to why would you read a biography? Celebrity gossip, a hard-backed Hello magazine? To find out how a favourite artist/musician/writer ticks? To recognise a commonality with them, or to look for evidence of greatness, difference at an early age? As a window onto a particular time or place? With a biography, unless it’s written with a lot of input from the subject or their closest associates, there’s going to be an element of guessing or interpretation; if the subject is dead they have no opportunity to correct any misapprehensions. Most people aren’t saints, and everyone has boring bits. At some point I realised I’m rarely interested enough to read about someone’s early years, while also being detached enough to not be disappointed by the unsavoury revelations. With great figures from history I often want the author to go follow some other person for a while rather than concentrating on a single person’s views, achievements and activities, as they’re not necessarily the most interesting person in every situation.

In the last few years I’ve read a few memoirs, including the sort of nature-writing that’s very author-focused. It’s in the author’s own words, it’s selective so unless it’s actually about their bad behaviour or ill health you probably don’t have to wade through all that, and it’s focused. My life as a birdwatcher. My childhood in the Yorkshire Dales in the late nineteenth century. In search of my sea-faring ancestors. Some were by famous people, some I hadn’t heard of but were released by one of the big publishers, others were small-circulation books for a local audience that I’ve picked up second-hand. Maybe what I’m saying is that I don’t find the entire story of a person that interesting and what I actually find satisfying in a biography is…it not being a biography.

Ifyou have thoughts on what makes good life-writing, let me know in the comments, and if you enjoyed mine you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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