Wednesday, 13 November 2019
Why I Don't Read Biographies And Memoir
In a recent Booktube video of mine talking about the non-fiction I read, I mentioned that I wasn’t a fan of biographies and memoirs, which prompted some comments below the line. So I thought I’d expand my thoughts and reasoning to try and delve deeper why I’m just not drawn to reading these personal stories.
I guess if I was at all drawn to biographies, we might be talking three categories of people – Historical Figures/ Politicians: Artists/Authors/Musicians/Creatives; Sports stars/Athletes. I am completely uninterested in business moguls/entrepreneurs, even if as many assert, they are filled with self-help exhortations of how to succeed the way they did. I dislike self-help books even more than biography!
I studied history at university. It made me hostile to further study of the subject (I changed my degree for my final year, so heartily sick of the subject I had become). But one of the things about History as an academic subject, is that you are discouraged from considering the personality and character of its (supposed) main movers, because adjudging a great leader’s character make up is not as scientific as the documents and sources that allow historians to form their theses about historical events and movements. So what could a biography of Lenin or Garibaldi tell you that you could definitively feed into your knowledge and appreciation of the Russian Revolution or Italian unification and independence? Nothing according to how History is practiced today. In my review of Laurent Binet’s wonderful novel “HHhH”, I go into considerable detail about the limitations of Academic History and you can view that here if you’re interested. Oh and this is why I don’t read Historical non-fiction as well.
In some ways, sports stars and creatives suffer similarly to my mind. When I watch my team on a sports field, I am only interested in how they perform and the outcome of the match. I have no interest in what they get up to outside of the sports arena. If I did, I’d probably be spitting feathers as they likely demonstrate a less than devoted dedication to their profession – making adverts, starting fashion lines, working off their adrenaline highs post-match etc. All perfectly legitimate activities, just ones I’d rather not know about. The one thing I’m fixated on is their sporting prowess, but apart from having little desire to know its development and coaching from childhood, any such biographical exploration would fail to yield answers. Who knows where talent comes from? You are to some extent born with it, but yes, you have to work hard to develop it to its fruition, but I don’t find such studies terribly enlightening, much as I don’t find successful entrepreneurs breaking down their hard work routines on the road to success terribly involving either.
And it’s similar for artists and creatives. We just don’t know where creativity comes from. (I have a bullet point schemata see at the end, but it’s not presented as definitive). A biographer, or even a literary critic, can analyse the life of an author and not unreasonably point to significant events and relationships that influenced certain things in their writing. But to do so is reductive. In making such linkages, it seems to be saying that a particular literary work would not have been produced in that form without this incident happening or that particular relationship. Picasso’s various muses were directly transposed to his canvases (albeit through the distortion of Cubist representation), so without those particular women the canvasses would have looked very different. But that is only partially the case. Picasso had an artistic vision, one he kept developing throughout his career. He would have painted Cubist representations of people and women in particular, even without the individual muses he did take into his bed. For any artist, it’s the work transforming their personal material into something that speaks more universally than it would without such work being done on it that is key. So to read about the incidents and relationship of an artist may allow us to directly parse a specific work of theirs, but can it sum up the whole artist? Which incident applies to what stage of an artist’s career? Does it only inform the work made around the time of the incident, or does it continually feed into their whole artistic vision for their work? Who can definitively say, not the biographer that’s for sure.
I also feel it’s worth trying to preserve that mystery of where good art comes from. Creativity is an intangible, why try and dissect it and match it to specific events that are likely not to tell the whole story anyway. Like I say, most artists have a much more comprehensive artistic vision (or philosophy if you prefer) informing their work, into which specific events and relationships may be interwoven, but they never out-rank the vision as a whole. I don’t read the lives of authors to pick up a few tips on our craft. They have their process and I have mine, which I know to be somewhat idiosyncratic. Could I share some processes with tubercular Franz Kafka who never left continental Mitteleuropa in his life, or perhaps Stefan Schweig on the run from country to country trying to outwit the Nazis? I don’t credit so, though like Kafka’s novel “Amerika” about a country he’d never seen, my current novel is set in a country I have never visited. But that’s probably where the similarity ends.
Why I don’t read memoir is even more tightly focused than why I don’t read biography. I can at least accord the need for biographies of people who have died and no longer can expand their oeuvre in whatever field they specialized in. The biographer as archaeologist, putting back together the shards of the departed subject. But I can’t justify in my mind the significance of memoir. What percentage of memoirs are truly warts and all, whereby the memoirist reproduces in full ugliness their bad decisions, hateful behaviours and the like? There are plenty of biographies that are hagiographies, but the tendency is even greater in memoir when it is the subject themselves at the helm, with their finger poised over the self-censorship button. Maybe it isn’t even a conscious airbrushing, maybe they just don’t see anything negative about how they’ve conducted their lives; but then such deluded fools are never going to be people I want to read about anyway. I accord that trauma memoirs have a use, I just have no desire to read them. I grew up in a house that contained an addict. I know what addiction looks like. I have no compunction to read other versions either for comparison, or more especially, not for pleasure either.
Secondly, memoirs are barely non-fiction. The arrangement of a person’s life into a coherent narrative for a reader, is so far removed from how anyone lives their life. There is no narrative order to our lives, and though there may be constants and repetitions in our behavior, we are still living minute to minute, day to day, week to week, having to react and respond to events that arise, most of which won’t make the final cut for the memoir. The act of ordering a narrative is tantamount to creating a fiction. I’d just rather read that sort of thing in a novel.
So there you have, why I don’t read biographies and memoirs. Please feel free to comment and disabuse me of my prejudices,
Creativity may involve some or all of the following:
1 1) An inherent curiosity about the world
2 2) Not accepting things as they appear (rejection of the surface)
3 3) A sense of outsiderness, or being apart from how others regard the world
4 4) A fully knitted-together view of reality that differs from the consensus view (this will likely form the basis of your artistic vision). This view does not have to be coherent or fully stack up
5 5) An ability to execute and deliver works of creativity based on the above