Bi­og­ra­phy

So­cial me­dia is breath­ing new life into an es­teemed lit­er­ary genre

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Char­lotte Gray

B com­bines his­tory, psy­chol­ogy, and gos­sip, and there will al­ways be a mar­ket for its in­sights into the Life (how ca­reers crest or crater) and the Times (the con­text of each life) of a stranger. Stu­dents of US pol­i­tics, for ex­am­ple, hunger for a fth vol­ume of two-time Pulitzer-win­ning au­thor Robert A. Caro’s bi­og­ra­phy of thirty-sixth pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son. Aside from the jaw-drop­ping de­tails about John­son’s per­sonal habits (is­su­ing or­ders to sub­or­di­nates while he defe­cated) and po­lit­i­cal achieve­ments (the Great So­ci­ety), there is Caro’s larger theme. In his words, “I al­ways wanted to use the life of a man to ex­am­ine po­lit­i­cal power, be­cause democ­racy shapes our lives.” Caro may dom­i­nate the bi­og­ra­phy world to­day, but ve vol­umes, to­talling many thou­sands of pages, about John­son with pub­li­ca­tion spread over nearly three decades? In twenty- ve years, how many read­ers will want a heavy­weight lin­ear nar­ra­tive about a Dead White Male? How many pub­lish­ers will sup­port such a marathon? To breathe life into their bi­ogra­phies, Caro’s suc­ces­sors won’t have the same sources that he can un­earth. For­get about the cor­re­spon­dence, di­aries, and scrib­bled cab­i­net agen­das through which he trawls. Post­mil­len­ni­als barely rec­og­nize each other’s sig­na­tures — they cer­tainly don’t know how to com­pose a hand­writ­ten let­ter. Emails are deleted or die on ob­so­lete hard drives; few peo­ple ad­mit to writ­ing di­aries; po­lit­i­cal lead­ers com­mu­ni­cate via tweets; lm, mu­sic, and lit­er­ary celebri­ties cu­rate their own nar­ra­tives on Youtube, In­sta­gram, and Face­book. Nev­er­the­less, I pre­dict the bi­og­ra­phy in­dus­try will blos­som in the next quar­ter cen­tury. Caro wannabes will con­tinue to pro­duce lit­er­ary bricks about s (as well as sub­jects of more di­verse gen­ders and back­grounds) be­cause cu­rios­ity about great lives is un­quench­able. The au­thors will rely on uni­ver­sity presses to pub­lish them and on a patch­work of arts grants, talks, lit­er­ary res­i­den­cies, day jobs, and gen­er­ous spouses to nance them. Mean­while, tech­nol­ogy will am­plify these tra­di­tional bi­ogra­phies. I al­ready en­joy the web­site links em­bed­ded in a hand­ful of non- ction ti­tles on my e-reader. When you down­load fu­ture bi­ogra­phies of, say, Leonard Co­hen or Justin Trudeau, with one tap you’ll be able to watch a con­cert ver­sion of “Hal­lelu­jah” or the lial eu­logy to Trudeau père. Plenty of to­mor­row’s bi­og­ra­phers will by­pass print al­to­gether. Last year, the six-part pod­cast Mogul: The Life and Death of Chris Lighty made its de­but on Spo­tify. The story of the man who man­aged hip hop artists such as Q tip and 50 Cent, the pod­cast also traced the evo­lu­tion of the genre from sub­ver­sive street mu­sic to ma­jor money-maker, largely through in­ter­views with key gures. The pod­cast’s for­mat, with its break beats and raw street talk, per­fectly suited the ma­te­rial. In The New Yorker, Sarah Lar­son de­scribed Mogul as “a big step in the evo­lu­tion of the emerg­ing genre of nar­ra­tive bi­o­graph­i­cal pod­casts,” which in­cludes series such as S town and Se­rial. Pod­casts and Youtube biopics free their cre­ators from the con­straints of lin­ear chronol­ogy in a way that is harder to achieve with the writ­ten word. Even in new me­dia, the chal­lenge for au­thors writ­ing about con­tem­po­rary sub­jects will be to get be­hind those art­fully cu­rated self-im­ages on so­cial me­dia. “Life must be lived for­ward, but can only be un­der­stood back­wards,” wrote Dan­ish philoso­pher Søren Kierkegaard. A story that is in­vis­i­ble day-to-day can be con­structed from a life­time of a sub­ject’s pho­to­graphs, ran­dom posts, and friends’ com­ments. But the su­per cial­ity of sources will con­trib­ute to other emerg­ing trends: group bi­ogra­phies and slim­mer vol­umes geared to lis­ti­cle at­ten­tion spans. I also ex­pect to­mor­row’s bi­og­ra­phers to in­creas­ingly in­sert con­tem­po­rary pre­oc­cu­pa­tions into their re­con­struc­tions of past lives, in or­der to shrink the gap be­tween past and present. His­to­rian Maya Jasanoff re­cently pub­lished The Dawn Watch: Joseph Con­rad in a Global World, in which she re­casts nov­el­ist Con­rad, born in 1857, not as a suc­ces­sor to Charles Dick­ens, as he was seen in his own life­time, but as the kind of global au­thor cel­e­brated in 2018. And I also ex­pect, in this era of fake news and post­mod­ernist skep­ti­cism, to see more bi­og­ra­phers drop­ping the veil of om­ni­science and putting them­selves on the page. Yes, I mean the naked “I,” as in, “In my opin­ion.” Bi­og­ra­phy is not an ob­jec­tive sci­ence; a writer’s bi­ases and in­ter­ests are wo­ven into the story they’re shap­ing. Read­ers have learned to ask, “Why should I trust you?” Now more than ever, bi­og­ra­phers need to con­vince read­ers that, in con­struct­ing a nar­ra­tive out of their sub­ject’s sprawl­ing, messy ex­is­tence, their own unique sen­si­tiv­i­ties have brought them as close as pos­si­ble to a cred­i­ble ver­sion of a life.

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