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There are so many crappy biographies … would you rather read a poorly-written biography of a fascinating life, OR an exquisitely well-written, wonderful read of one of a not-so-interesting life?

This is definitely not my usual genre, although I dabble in the ones that concern a favorite author or musician. To answer the question, I would prefer the latter—an exquisitely well-written, wonderful read of a not-so-interesting life, because I simply cannot stand bad writing, something put together in a haste, or a book that reads like Hollywood tabloids. Unfortunately, most biographies are opportunistic liaisons that are riding on the crucial moments in time and the limelight of the subjects. What I mean by poorly written biographies consists of two kinds of bad bios: the “authorized” or kiss-ass ones and the ones filled with sleazy rumors or outright lies that simply exist to push a writer’s agenda and sell books with no interest in any insight. I can live without these fluffs that are grinding on the ax for cash. A good biography attempts to be balanced and not reveal the author’s feelings on the subject too brazenly. Even if the life is not super exciting, the biographer is free of blame, as long as the writing does the life’s justice. That said, I do enjoy The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings profusely. It’s like having the best of two worlds. The strength of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham lies in Hastings’ ability to establish the link between Maugham’s private lives and his works. Hastings adopts a structure of the book that emphasizes on how Maugham, a playwright, an intellectual agent, a novelist, a traveler, a lover, and an observer, transposes real people he encountered into characters to whom he meted out his often satirical and caricatured treatment. Hastings has also published a biography of Evelyn Waugh, which is on my reading list.

13 Responses

  1. That’s a real toss up for me. If I’m not interested in the person then regardless of the writing I would probably chuck it and move on.

    • That speaks for a lot of people (whose lives I have no interest to find out). I can count with one hand the number of biographies I have read.

    • I can’t agree because I consider all biography books interesting. I read many books and from every one of them I had something to learn. It is true that some of them were more interesting like the Top 9 biographies by Yuri Mintskovsky but any person has done some mistakes in his live and if we can learn form a biography how to avoid them….that mean the book was every useful.

  2. If you have an interesting subject and a great author, that’s the best. I read A Tragic Honesty (biography of Richard Yates) a few months ago and it was, by far, the best literary biography ever!

    • The same biographer, Selina Hastings, also wrote the biography of Evelyn Waugh. I am bound to read that. Now that you recommend Tragic Honesty, I include it on my reading list. I’ve been looking for Yates’s novels.

  3. I didn’t even consider “authorized” and “non-authorized” biographies when read the start of your post. I do read biographies now and then but very rarely read any with those two monikers. It’s rare that you’ll find beautiful prose in a biography. I think it would get in the way, honestly. A biography should be well written, but its purpose is to inform rather than to dazzle with style. I think the most impressive biographies work their wonders through the depth of the research that has gone into them. That’s probably what matters most to me.

    • The authorized ones to me are like merchandises. I don’t even expect literary craftsmanship. I think it’s unnecessary to render literary beauty in a biography, as long as the writing is smooth and clear. (I like the phrase “dazzle with style”). 🙂

  4. Reserved this book at library just the other day. Glad to read a favorable review.

  5. Very good points, all around. I’m not a big biography person, either but I think I went a bit over the top and went for the kill on celebios in my answer. ;O)

  6. You say kiss-ass and sleazy like they’re bad things….
    LOL, I don’t like scandalous rumor mongering books either but I do enjoy the occasional celeb-bio, if I’m a fan of the celeb. Kathy Griffin? Hell yeah. Ashley Judd? Bring it. But then I’m only interested in biographies of people I’m interested in, anyway! If they’re well written, that’s the cherry on top.

    • Actually I read Somerset Maugham’s biography wanting to know the scoop of his private (sexual) lives with other men, or, even better, literary celebrities. LOL

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