Because a human being is a process that explores environment and generates responses to it, then a human being is different from one day to the next, depending on where he or she is, as well as who else is in the room. The problem of “biography” is that “bio” by definition does not stay the same while you go find your pencil so you can write it down. And no two people will see the same phenomenal being because no two observers are the same.
Then there is the problem of education and motive. Educated people want sources, confirmation, context, and a “measured” interpretation. Those who barely read want tabloid sensation, blood and sex, the hell with the truth. The latter sells. The former might win a prize if you know the right people.
When I wrote the bio of Bob Scriver, I just threw in all the facts and stories I knew and organized it by the steps of bronze casting because when I came through his life, we built a foundry. I wanted to capture the temperature of plaster setting up (it gets hot when it gets hard — if that makes a good metaphor, it was already there) and the ticking of the poured molten bronze cooling in the mold. I wanted to put in all the basic things a person would want to know in order to understand Bob’s body of work. And maybe a little about his body as well, since I loved it.
But they told me I was doing it all wrong — it should be short, conform to other artist bios, and be celebratory enough to increase sales. Then when it was published that also happened all wrong. The academic press — and many of them seem to be like this — was in turmoil over money and prestige. The editor was mostly interested in publishing his own work about his phoney relationship to what in Canada are called “aborigines” or “First Nations.” Nevertheless the bio of Bob itself exists and has enough info in it to be useful for scholars and aficionados. That’s one valid reason for writing a biography.
Other reasons include:
- The importance of the person
- The interest of the writer
- Public concern about the person
- Love of the person by many
- The subject is likely to sell
- Wish to do mischief
- Wish to explain and save someone misunderstood
- Hope that impact on the culture will be progressive
Reasons NOT to write a biography
- The person is alive and objects
- Consequences to the person might not be good
- The potential author may endanger a valued relationship with the subject
- The author just may not be a good enough writer
- There will be legal consequences
- Other people are connected to the subject and they will be hurt
- The author may have evil motives and the bio will boomerang
- Confirms old stereotypes
- Makes the author look good at the expense of the subject
Reasons people write biographies even when they shouldn’t
- Showing off
- Can’t help it
- Just don’t get it
- Other people egg them on
- Need the money
Irrelevant considerations (at least they shouldn’t matter)
- Your Mama wouldn’t approve
- You won’t live that long anyway
- Better things to do
- Money — I realize I’m way out of step with this opinion. This is a culture where money rules, which is a good reason to write against money.
Writing a biography that will never be published vs. writing a biography that WILL be published vs. writing a biography that keeps morphing.
In the last case I’m thinking of a friend in Calgary, Ray Djuff, who must make his living not-writing, but continues to produce books anyway. His specialty is Glacier National Park/Waterton Peace Park, which are contiguous. He started out with the idea of writing about Two Guns Whitecalf, the Blackfoot alleged to be the model for the American “buffalo nickel.” The profile is on one side and the buffalo (bison) is on the other. NO one calls it a “bison nickel,” but some call it an “Indian Head” nickel even though “Indian” is now politically incorrect. The sculptor himself, James Earle Fraser, has said that he used a composite of models. No one pays attention to that. They love the early 20th Century idea of the “Indian chief” and people here love Two Guns. (Also buffs, as long as they’re not standing in the front yard.)
So Ray was looking for the “real” story, which seemed like a good hook for a book, except that it kept morphing. For instance, facts about the life of Two Guns are scarce but opinions and some facts about the Whitecalf family abound, notably about Jim Whitecalf Sr. who was still living recently and has been written about by several people. But in the process of researching, the author met other descendants and pretty soon his book was about the whole Whitecalf family.
Even more interestingly, Ray began to understand that he was unconsciously carrying many 19th century ideas about what an “Indian” IS and also realized how different the experience of the Canadian indigenous people has been from that of the American indigenous folks, though both histories are packed with suffering and injustice. A lot of story for one little coin, even though it can be worth hundreds of dollars. Much more than any single book. BUT the community of indigenous people is no longer naive nor powerless and their opinion of the enterprise will affect publicity and sales.
The reasons for using a publishing house are that they provide venture capital for the manufacture of a paper-and- binding book, they can supply experienced editors, and they have a network for distribution and sales. At one time they also had a network of reviewers. This has changed due to the Internet. A person can easily publish their own book if they are willing and able to do all these things. Bob Scriver did exactly that and Adolf Hungry Wolf did it for decades in a low-key homemade way. The good part is that the books exist, and the bad part is that not enough people know about them. A factor in between is the glorious used-book market keeping volumes alive that would otherwise be pulped. But the inevitable drawback is that the money doesn’t go to the author.
Through advertising, publishers have managed to convince the public that being published is like a college degree — a guarantee of quality. The truth is that neither a degree nor being published by a "house" means much now.
When an author or a worthy subject are approaching the end of life, the question of biography becomes sharp for both sides. My solution is to just write it, whether the subject or the reader ever sees it or not. I also accept the idea of the archive as a form of biography. But most of all it is the daily work that makes me happy. If it turns out not to be published, not to be the definitive version, not to be timely, then that’s irrelevant. It is what it is, which is a joy.