Finessing the biography

In my professional life, I’ve written more biographies than anything else. And I’ve come to really admire the genre, not just because I write them, or because I find non-fiction more interesting now that I’m a grownup, but because I often find how the biographer phrases history really fascinating.

When you first pick up the biography of a person, you’re not looking to find out anything about the writer. But how the biographer feels about their subject is almost immediately apparent. Read any politician’s biography, one written by a person in his/her camp, and another written by a supporter of the opposing party, and you’ll see an obvious difference in tone.

Intent is written into every fact a biographer chooses to highlight. You can read the praise, or the disdain between the lines, though often those feelings aren’t hidden. Recently, I’ve read biographies of Al Gore, Roald Dahl and Barack Obama. I read several Al Gore bios because I was writing my  own biography on him. I read Roald Dahl because I came across an interesting one while doing research for another project, and I picked it up out of curiosity. And I read the Barack Obama bio because… well… because.

The most enjoyable biographies are those where the biographer is free with their analysis of the subject’s history, and ones where the biographer leads with quotes. I mainly do the latter in the bios that I write, and I try really hard not to inject my own feelings, though I’m sure they’re clear anyway.

But the best part of a biography is the personal finesse used to tell the facts. I finished David Remnick’s The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama this weekend, and here’s my favorite line: “Obama, after less than nine months in office, had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. The President’s reaction was a more elongated and colorful version of “Shut up.”” Now that’s both fact, and entertainment.

It makes me want to get started on a new biography just so I can use a line like that.