Lately I have been thinking about how we create and consume biographies. I have to admit that biographies are my favorite literary form and, even though I write and enjoy fiction, there is something compellingly real about a well turned biography.
There are a couple of problems with biographies as we know them today and these problems can, understood rightly, give us some insight into our own lives.
Problem Number One: Biographies are almost always about famous people or at least people whose lives were re-shaped by famous historical events. People do read about the commanding general but rarely have the opportunity to consider the life of the lathe operator who stayed at home and helped build the equipment on which the general’s soldiers relied.
Problem Number Two: Even though they are shelved in the non-fiction section, biographies are best understood as fact based works of fiction. We are not reading about a person’s life we are reading a writer’s understanding of that person’s life. These are two different things.
Problem Number Three: The style of the contemporary biography favors page flowing into page and chapter leading into chapter. We are giving a smooth arc of event and understanding which, as we all know from our personal lives, is not at all the way life is actually lived.
Last weekend I stumbled upon an interesting form of biography written about an ordinary person which seemed, to me, to break new ground. Here is a taste of it (translated from French)…
One of my Aunts explained that, because of the treatments my mother had been talking, her blood had become like water.
My father said that, of all of us, my brother took it the hardest.
My father thought that, in order not to be sad, the best thing was to avoid talking about it.
In his family, many subjects were taboo. Children didn’t speak at the table.
This stream of related but disconnected observations strikes me as being much closer to the way we live our lives.