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A biographer is a novelist on oath

June 19, 2012

The growth of the publishing industry, and in particular the growth of the popular biography, has impacted on our cultural memory.  How do the heavyweight biographers go about their business?  Michael Scammell, author of biographies on Solzhenitsyn and Koestler, is interviewed by Michael McDonald for The Wilson Quarterly.  Here are some edits, but you can read the full thing here.

McDonald: How do you view the essential difference between being a novelist and a biographer?

Scammell: To paraphrase the British literary critic Desmond MacCarthy, the biographer is the novelist on oath. He captured both parts of what’s important. Where he was very astute was in recognizing that the biographer is using the same arsenal of devices as the novelist; that is to say, the biographer is using characterization. It’s not simply enough to take the sum total of people’s impressions of someone, to collect them and put them all down on the page; a biographer has to select, too. One has to be able to set a scene in such a way that the reader is drawn in and convinced by what one has written, and that too is a novelistic gift.

McDonald: Facts alone don’t convince?

Scammell: It depends on the genre, but facts alone can never convince the reader. At the very least, there has to be an argument. In a biography, if the facts aren’t artfully presented, you end up with a flattened portrait. Let me put it this way: Quite a bit has been written about the suspension of disbelief in fiction. My wife, who reads more novels than I do, has a habit of picking up a novel, starting it, and then all of a sudden she’ll throw it on the table or chair. I say, “What’s wrong?” She’ll respond, “I don’t believe in this anymore.” And the biographer has the exact same problem. It’s twofold: One, does the reader believe what the biographer is saying to him about the subject of the biography? And, two, does the reader believe that the biographer has found the best way to say it? Of course, biographers also rely heavily on the intrinsic interest of their subjects, often too heavily, in my opinion, but credibility is even more important in biography than in fiction, because fiction is made up.

This touches on the other aspect of MacCarthy’s dictum: the oath. As a biographer, you must write only what you know (or think you know), what is genuinely fact based. You can’t make up a whole new character for your subject. You cannot—and here is where I think Edmund Morris went wrong in his biography of Reagan—imagine scenes and say, “This is what he would have been doing or thinking. I know it, because I know the rest of his life.” You can put down only what you have sources for—preferably more than one source. What you do, if you can, is get as many different accounts of your subject’s character and behavior as possible, and, in effect, you triangulate.

McDonald: How so?

Scammell: One of my favorite scenes in the Koestler biography is when Koestler, Simone de Beauvoir, Camus, and Sartre were all at a party at the home of [the French novelist and musician] Boris Vian. They each reported different things about that party, but none of them knew what any of the others had written. I found their accounts, and I was able to show it in 3-D, as it were, melding the different versions and revealing several layers of meaning. The oath is against invention; if you’re not sure of something, you don’t put it in. But when you have a variety of sources, you can put them together for the reader in such a way that the reader is also convinced and nods his head and says, “Ah yes, I see. I now know what Koestler didn’t know at the time, or Camus, or Sartre, or Simone de Beauvoir, for that matter, and I understand.” You need a novelist’s skill in timing and setting a scene, but also a biographer’s honesty in sticking to the known facts.

McDonald: But isn’t the besetting biographical temptation, at least when the facts are either murky or missing, to fill in the blanks by seeking patterns in the subject’s life?

Scammell: Yes, the temptation to find patterns is very seductive, and I wouldn’t say I always resisted it. You do tend to put two and two together and have a hypothesis about how something’s going to turn out. But this is where the oath comes in. If you can’t find the smoking gun, you can’t convict, but you still have two options. You don’t necessarily omit the possible—or probable—existence of a gun, but you have to be frank with the reader. You have to confess and say, “This is what I think may have occurred, but I can’t prove it.” And that way you have your cake and eat it, too. The thought and the image are planted in the reader’s mind, but you don’t claim more for it than you can back up with evidence. It’s also true that one is always looking for the subject to behave as you would have predicted he would. On the other hand, it’s very valuable when you come across something that contradicts the pattern, and better still, the reader’s expectations, because the reader suddenly realizes your subject is an autonomous human being and unpredictable and liable to do and say surprising things—even perhaps surprising himself.

McDonald: Is there a code of ethics for a biographer?Scammell: It’s very simple: Don’t lie. Of course, when you break that commandment down and start to analyze it, you realize it’s not that simple after all. You can, after all, without technically lying, create a false picture. Or you can try to force the reader to conclusions that are not truly justified by the evidence. I think that voice also plays a role here. Can you trust that person who’s telling you all these things and setting out the evidence for them, or is there something shady and evasive about it? The judgment is quite subjective, of course, and readers don’t always agree, but I have faith in the ability of most intelligent readers to spot the difference.
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