Telling Lives

The Dynamics of the Relationship between Biographer and Subject.


Oscar Wilde said, “Every person has their disciples, but it is usually Judas who writes the biography.” By its very nature biography demands that a relationship is forged between biographer and the subject – albeit one of varying depths and tensions.

The biographer comes to the subject with a pre-conceived notion as to why he wants to write about the subject, and in return, if the subject authorises the biography, he/she, too, is desirous of a certain outcome. However, is it possible for a completely unbiased result to emanate from this relationship, one that will satisfy both biographer and subject, and ultimately the readers who seek out the biographies? This essay seeks to explore the relationships between biographers and their subjects, the possibility of impartiality and the relevance for New Journalism.

            Biography is one of the most compelling and popular literary genres. Through biography, readers seek to understand human experience. They look to the personal experiences of the subject – hopes, struggles, emotions, social circumstances – to find significance in the subject’s life, and thereby significance or relevance in their own lives.

            When approached from a purely academic perspective, biographies may become nothing more than a log of facts. And yet, when borrowing from fictional techniques to render a subject with personality and character or to frame the subject in a setting, the biographer may be accused of fictionalising – an accusation which could discredit the biographer. It is the very essence of biography –  the biographer’s interpretation of the lives and facts about the subject– that will always carry the greatest risk.

     Reasons to write biographies about specific subjects are obviously diverse and vast, but according to biographer Backscheider, “cultural interests, economics, and ambition merge with the personal and may even be the primary motives for choosing a particular subject.” Biographers assume that what a person does “expresses an inner life – personality, motives, aspirations, character.”(Backscheider:2001)       

Perhaps the wisdom of English biographer George Painter would be prudent for writers to consider when examining one’s motives to write the life of another person. “The biographer must discover, beneath the mask of the artist’s everyday, objective live, the secret life from which he extracted his work.”(Hobbs:1999)

     The biographer’s voice and choice of material is enormously powerful in transmitting a tone that will encourage or discourage reader identification and/or empathy with the subject.

   Personally, when I read about someone’s life, I don’t necessarily care about the subjective opinion the biographer has of his or her work, especially when I find it perversely wrongheaded. Nor do I care to be reminded that the biographer is running around interviewing everybody he can find, or rummaging through all the archives, through constructions like “so-and-so said to me.” Unless, of course, the biographer can do these things in an interesting way. But not everybody can write The Quest for Corvo or Shelley: The Pursuit, and quite a few people should stop trying.”(

     The voice of the biographer is one aspect of the biographical genre that allows the reader to accept or reject the biographer’s interpretation of the subject. In the genre of New Journalism, the voice of the writer is evident and it is therefore anticipated that any marriage between these two genres will result in the writer adopting a voice that seeks to engage the reader in the life and/or work of the subject.

     “Commenting on the regressive effect that both journalistic and psychoanalytic relationships have, Malcolm observes that ‘the subject becomes a kind of child to the writer, regarding him as a permissive, all-accepting, all-forgiving mother, and expecting that the book will be written by her. Of course, the book is written by the strict, all-noticing, unforgiving father.’”(Boynton:2005)

     The relationship between biographer and subject has always been a site of difficulty, and journalist Janet Malcolm’s observation possibly captures the feelings of an aggrieved subject who feels that they have been betrayed by their biographer.

     One of the earliest literary biographies is Memoirs of the Author of the Rights of Woman which William Godwin wrote about his wife, writer Mary Wollstonecraft  in the late 18th century. The intellectual couple had enjoyed a satisfying if somewhat unconventional marriage and Godwin’s biography was the first honest, transparent biography of a woman. When Memoirs was published, the Historical Magazine called it “‘the most hurtful book’ of 1798.  The poet Robert Southey accused Godwin of ‘a want of all feeling in stripping his dead wife naked’. The European Magazine described the work as ‘the history of a philosophical wanton’.”(Holmes:2000 )

     Godwin sought to write a book that would present a portrait of his wife in which all facets of her personality would be considered in her make-up as a writer. It was a complete biography “intimate in detail and often critical of Wollstonecraft’s behaviour, though always understanding and passionately committed to her genius” and finally “with tender simplicity he described their own liaison and marriage… and in almost gynaecological detail, her tragic death after bearing her second daughter, Mary.”(Holmes:2000 )

The Monthly Review wrote, “’blushes would suffuse the cheeks of most husbands if they were forced to relate those anecdotes of their wives which Mr Godwin voluntarily proclaims to the world. The extreme eccentricity of Mr Godwin’s sentiments will account for his conduct. Virtue and vice are weighed by him in a balance of his own. He neither looks to marriage with respect, nor to suicide with horror.”(Holmes:2000 )

     It was Godwin’s conviction “that a writer’s duty was to carry honest feeling from private to public life”, but the world wasn’t ready for this radical honesty and the biographer was considered to be nothing more than “an unfeeling husband who betrayed family secrets.”(Holmes:2000 )

     The Memoirs caused Godwin endless personal torment. The Anti-Jacobin and other magazines kept up a remorseless onslaught against Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, including indexing the book under “’Prostitution: see Mary Wollstonecraft’”.   Women writers who had previously been sympathetic to Wollstonecraft’s ideologies felt that “the very form of biography betrayed the ideology of feminism. It made Mary Wollstonecraft seem too romantic and too dangerous a figure.”(Holmes:2000 ) They too rejected Godwin’s biography, and Wollstonecraft was excluded from at least two biographies of women writers that were written after her death.

     This unanimous outrage from all sectors came as a great shock to Godwin and he never again employed the bold honesty that was contrary to the conventions of the time in either his fiction or his philosophical writing.

      Candour and courage are two of the cornerstones of New Journalism, and are sought by readers of contemporary biographies or biographical fragments in newspapers and magazines.  Readers expect the biographer to ask the questions that the subject doesn’t possibly want to answer. And more than this, readers expect a biography to be recounted with integrity.

     W H Auden, Charles Dickens and Henry James burned their letters and private documents and Rudyard Kipling bequeathed all his letters to his daughter who refused to make them available for public perusal after his death.  Personal documents are just one of the tools available to the biographer to gain interiority into the life of a subject, especially of a subject who is no longer alive. In the case of a deceased subject it is the role of the biographer to access and assimilate secondary sources, such as letters, documents, diaries, interviews with family, friends, enemies, etc., which will lead the biographer to drawing a substantially researched composite of the subject’s life.

     Ronald Suresh Roberts was contracted by Random House to write Nadine Gordimer’s biography. For almost a decade Suresh Roberts was granted unlimited access to Gordimer’s private study and its contents.  In the controversial biography entitled No Cold Kitchen, an extract of which appeared in The Sunday Times, Suresh Roberts gives an interesting insight into how Nadine Gordimer views people’s perceptions of her, specifically journalists.       

“In a 1986 letter Gordimer thanked her outgoing French media minder for ‘supporting me with your friendship and understanding when I am thrown to the journalist wolves (and some even eat like wolves; do you remember the lunch with Francoise Xenakis when she was supposed to be interviewing me, but her mouth was so full all the time she really couldn’t . . . ) . I am touched to think that you not only put up with me, but also have warm feelings towards me.’”(Suresh Roberts:2004 )

     When Gordimer read a draft of the biography she withdrew her authorisation decrying Suresh Roberts’ interference in her private life. Asked by a journalist how much readers are entitled to know about the private life of writers, she said, “There’s no entitlement at all… All there really is to know of the writer is in the work. How the writer lived as an individual and as a human being is entirely his or her private affair.”(Baron:2004 )

     In a 1987  interview with a Norwegian Journalist Gordimer said, “My lovers are my private business.”(Schoonakker:2004 )

     Does a biographical subject have the luxury of ‘private business’?

     Nadine Gordimer dismissed writing her autobiography, yet she gave Suresh Roberts, as authorised biographer, unlimited access to her personal documents.  Surely her sentiment that how she lived her private life was of no consequence to anyone else, is a naïve response from such an accomplished writer who is well aware that a writer’s life-experiences informs their writing.

     Biography seeks to superimpose life over work and work over life in the hope of weaving patterns of meaning that have shaped the life of the subject. To expect that the biographer will judiciously weed out the caustic letters, intimate observations and personal declarations that attest to the ordinary-ness of the subject is a callow expectation.

     All journalists or biographers are faced with material about which they have to make a decision. It is accepted that the writer cannot include everything about the subject, but it is hoped that the writer will include a selection of facts that are truly representative of the subject and which selection produces a balanced view of the subject’s life and/or their work.

     The integrity of the biographer, in his assimilation and interpretation of these sources, will determine the final picture of the subject that the biographer reveals to the world. Christopher Ricks’ review of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, describes the role of Mailer as biographer of executed murderer Gary Gilmore, “Mailer is … the medium, not the message.”(Ricks:2003)

     Mailer may have been able to maintain authorial integrity, but not all biographers can be held in the same high esteem. In a parallel situation, writer Joe McGinnis was afforded exclusive access to murder accused and finally convicted murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald. During the trial and subsequent to the conviction, MacDonald continued to grant McGinnis access to his home and personal records. It was during this complete access to information that McGinnis found a document in which MacDonald admitted to taking diet pills and although he stated in the document that he wasn’t sure if he had taken diet pills on the day of the murder, McGinnis deliberately omitted MacDonald’s uncertainty.  One of the side-effects of the diet pills was psychosis, which supported McGinnis’ personal verdict of MacDonald’s guilt. This manipulation of facts directly attests to McGinnis’ lack of integrity.

     Long before the end of the trial, McGinnis had concluded that MacDonald was guilty and yet in almost two years worth of correspondence to MacDonald subsequent to the verdict, McGinnis commiserated with the murderer about his conviction, giving no hint that it was his intention to portray MacDonald as a killer in the book he was writing.

     McGinnis may have shirked his biographical conscience, but he was sued by MacDonald and in the subsequent trial he put out a missive to several journalists to follow his own trial. It promised to be a worthy case. How valid was it to put a journalist on trial for telling the truth as he perceived it?

     Janet Malcolm was the only journalist who took McGinnis’ bait. Her relationship with McGinnis resulted in the book The Journalist and the Murderer which she subsequently wrote in 1998, accusing McGinnis of duplicity in order to get the story.

She also slated journalists en-masse in what has become a notorious definition, “every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”(Malcolm:1998 ) However, Malcolm’s own agenda and reputation are not nearly as lily-white as she would have McGinnis or readers believe.

     The New Yorker Magazine is Malcolm’s stomping ground. It was on their literary pages that In the Freud Archives, her magnum opus in character assassination, was first published in 1983 – a two-part vilification of psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson.

     Masson was outraged at Malcolm’s “portrayal of him as a stupendously promiscuous braggart and narcissist, Masson promptly called his lawyer. ‘I was completely devastated,’ he later testified in court. ‘I had never been so upset in my whole life.’ In November 1984, Masson sued Malcolm, The New Yorker, and Knopf (which published the articles in book form) for libel, claiming that virtually everything Malcolm had quoted him as saying (such as ‘I was like an intellectual gigolo’) was either false, distorted, or had been taken out of context.”(Boynton:2005 )

     The court case dragged on for twelve years through five complaints, one dismissal, two appeals, a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court, a hung jury, and finally a completed trial that eventually decided in Malcolm’s favour.

     Suresh Roberts was outraged at Gordimer’s withdrawal of her authorisation. “This is outrageous behaviour by a woman who claims to be a champion of free speech,” Suresh Roberts said, “she wanted to appear without vanity or blemish. I resisted and she emerges in rounded, human terms. It’s just that she is unaccustomed to being written about in ways over which she has no control.”(Suresh Roberts:2004)


In the Gordimer / Suresh Roberts case, local opinion went against Suresh Roberts and supporters of Gordimer rejected Suresh Roberts for introducing “into what was intended to be serious literary work, bits of unworthy gossip.”(Schoonakker:2004 )

     Fellow journalists and writers accused Malcolm of using the McGinnis case to purge her writerly soul of her crime against Masson and against journalism itself. They suggested that the book was nothing more than “a veiled biography” (Boynton:2005 ). Malcolm defended herself by saying that the two suits were completely different, but many felt that the fundamental aspect to both was the betrayal of a friend.

     Time magazine warned readers  that “Malcolm has a tendency to hog the stage; her sense of identification with Plath as another literary young lady of the 1950s is so often trumpeted that readers not interested in purchasing an autobiography of Janet Malcolm should consider themselves forewarned.”(Sacks:1994 )

     Gordimer’s US publishers, Farrar, Straus & Giroux backed their writer and stated that the reason that Gordimer’s authorisation had been withdrawn was “mainly to do with the meandering quality of the narrative and the author’s gratuitous insertion of himself into it.”(Schoonakker:2004 )

     The biographer invites the reader to participate in areas of common interest and he clearly reminds the reader of the position he retains in the biography with the use of the authorial “I”.

     South African writer Jann Turner says “someone said that all writers have ‘a sliver of ice’ in our hearts. I think that when I’m looking at something that I want to turn into a story I’m already standing at a certain distance from it. On the other hand you have stand close enough to be able to know and understand your subject. Finding the right distance or proximity is part of the creative tension.” There is no doubt that relationships between biographers and their subjects are fraught with tensions that are inherent in biographical intimacy.

      In nearly all of Ms Malcolm’s biographical pieces, she has been accused of betrayal by the subjects. In her first book, Diana and Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography Malcolm, referring to the photographer, states, “Avedon does not try to make people look bad…he simply doesn’t do anything to make them look good”(Selligman:2005 ). Is this a philosophy that she took to heart?

     In Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession she refers to her subject as a “remarkable and lovable man” in her acknowledgements, but then paints him as an “ambitious, narcissistic, gossipy and even venal man.”(Selligman:2005 )

     In The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm readily admits that the subject “has to face the fact that the journalist — who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things — never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own.”(Malcolm:1998 )

     Fred Friendly, an American broadcaster protested that Malcolm’s sweeping accusation against all journalists was “distorted by a crabbed vision of the profession and her own place in it.”(Selligman:2005 )

     One of the tenets of new journalism is that the writer places themselves at the centre of the story. Malcolm, Suresh Roberts and Godwin all placed themselves in the story and yet all are accused of betrayal.

     Gay Talese followed Frank Sinatra for an evening and forty years later, his four-part biography is still celebrated as a remarkable piece of integrity-filled writing.

      “I think [the journalists] short-change their readers and themselves if they treat the folks they cover with detachment that borders on disdain and also fail to use their special knowledge and experience to its best advantage,” observes journalist Bill O’Connell writing in  FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics.

     It is apparent that the relationship between biographer and subject is always going to be the contested site of two agendas and perhaps Caroline Drinker Bowen has the best solution, “In writing biography, fact and fiction shouldn’t be mixed. And if they are, the fiction parts should be printed in red ink, the fact parts in black ink.”(Hobbs:1999 )


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