Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Quandary for Biographers: Get Up Close, but How Personal?

By Published: November 13, 2012

When Doris Kearns Goodwin was still young and unknown and writing her biography of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, she stayed at his Texas ranch. Sometimes, she said in the book’s prologue, when he could not sleep, he would settle into her bed and confess his troubles while she sat nearby.

Paula Broadwell with “All In,” her biography of David H. Petraeus. T. Ortega Gaines/The Charlotte Observer, via Associated Press
Walter Isaacson signing his biography of Steve Jobs, with whom he became close during the project.David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Walter Isaacson was at Steve Jobs’s bedside as Mr. Jobs was dying of cancer, an experience, Mr. Isaacson has acknowledged, that made him “deeply emotionally wrapped up” with his subject.

Contemporary biography has always been a tricky balancing act, even before Paula Broadwell demonstrated with her book about David H. Petraeus how the scales can tip decisively the wrong way.
The challenge of writing a biography about a person who is still alive is that an author must first establish trust and a comfort level with a subject, to get access and a free flow of information. But the biographer is still expected to evaluate and expose unsparingly.

There is no road map to follow because publishing houses acquire all types of biographies — from serious historical tomes to quick turnarounds about of-the-moment public figures — and do not have clear boundaries for authors on how to achieve their objectives. 

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