Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

How much liberty should biographers take with their subjects’ lives?

Illustration for article titled How much liberty should biographers take with their subjects’ lives?

In her 1998 essay “Fact And/Or/Plus Fiction,” Ursula K. Le Guin addressed what she saw as a reckless trend in non-fiction—not an erosion of standards overall, but an increase in what she calls the “theatricalizing” of written history and biography. In particular, she laments “writers of non-fiction narrative who ‘create’ facts, introduce inventions, for the sake of aesthetic convenience, wishful thinking, spiritual solace, psychic healing, vengeance, profit, or anything else”—and she goes so far as to say that non-fiction writers who take such liberties “aren’t using the imagination, but betraying it.”

It’s interesting that she speaks of the imagination as a power that can be used for either good or ill. Le Guin is foremost a fiction author—she’s expressed her aversion to writing non-fiction several times (ironically in essay form)—and that’s primarily science fiction and fantasy, genres she’s euphemized as “the literature of imagination.” It isn’t that she’s against dreaming stuff up; speculation is her stock in trade. She just doesn’t want history authors or biographers to do it. “As soon as the writer tells us what Napoleon murmured to Josephine in bed and how Josephine’s heart went pitpat,” she posits in “Fact And/Or/Plus Fiction,” “we know we’re nearer Oz than Paris.” In other words: Non-fiction writers should leave fantasy to the fantasists.

I thought of Le Guin recently while reading Brad Ricca’s new book Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures Of Jerry Siegel And Joe Shuster—The Creators Of Superman. At first, the book annoyed me. It begins predictably, rephrasing the oft-told tale of how two working-class high-school kids, Siegel and Shuster, came together to create a mash-up of mythic archetypes and cinema icons that would come to symbolize so much more—and launch the superhero genre along the way. It wasn’t the story itself that bugged me, but the way Ricca relates it. For instance, while describing Shuster’s penchant for drawing in class instead of paying attention to his lessons, Ricca writes:

With his left hand, he brought his pencil down to a forty-five degree angle over the paper. It hovered there for a moment, floating over the page. His books wobbled in a pile under his desk. He tried to shift his dangling feet so no one could see they weren’t hitting the floor.


Once I became acclimated to the glacial pace of such overwritten scenes, I realized Ricca knew what he was doing. He infuses his prose with the same kind of whiz-bang wonder—even when describing the mundane—that Siegel and Shuster gave Superman, up to and including the character’s heroic origin story, which Ricca reminds us begins in Cleveland rather than on Krypton. It’s rings grandiosely, but it’s also the lingua franca of superhero comics themselves. Le Guin would call it theatricalizing—but applied to the advent of Superman, it not only works, it’s practically called for.

Ricca’s prose grew on me, but the liberty he takes kept nagging. No interview with Shuster that I’ve ever read has gone into the level of detail that Ricca does. Forty-five-degree angle? Dangling feet? Ricca was making this up. At best, it was mildly distracting; at worse, it felt like filler. Eventually, though, I realized that Ricca was simply doing what most biographers want to do: put their readers in the dangling shoes of their subjects. And the close third-person point of view that Ricca uses—a perspective in which the author seems to be intimately channeling the character, as if perched on his shoulder—is completely conventional. The thing is, it’s more conventional in fiction, not non-fiction.

That’s changing. As Le Guin noted in her essay 15 years ago, non-fiction has been drifting toward a more engaging, stylized form of biography since the ’60s—when Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood popularized the so-called non-fiction novel, a term that might make Le Guin’s head pop. Capote fielded plenty of criticism for his clear lack of objectivity while researching the murders that In Cold Blood dramatizes, but his actual fly-on-the-wall narrative style has entered the non-fiction vernacular. Only a handful of holdouts like Le Guin—who blasts In Cold Blood in her essay—still contest the act of theatricalization itself.

There’s another factor, though, that may help explain the uneasiness that lingered in me all the way through Super Boys. I felt as if I were reading a script for a docudrama—an elaborately written one, for sure, but a script nonetheless. Ricca uses that script to assemble scenes vividly, the way a director would, and with the same omniscient access to detail, thought, and emotion that a docudrama director must manufacture to create a fluid visual narrative. Authors don’t need to do this. In prose, not every pixel of every frame must be filled with information. Whether Ricca does this purposefully or in some unconscious mimicry of film isn’t clear. As a whole, the book works—but it may be purely by instinct. Or, to be less generous, purely by accident.


Another recent biography is much more clear about its intentions and methods. Soundings: The Story Of The Remarkable Woman Who Mapped The Ocean Floor, is Hali Felt’s book about the late Columbia University oceanographer Marie Tharp. Felt didn’t get the idea for Soundings until reading an obituary of Tharp in 2006, which intrigued her enough to begin investigating this unsung hero of continental drift theory. Interviews with Tharp were impossible. On top of that, Felt is not a scientist; she’s a university writing teacher with a literary background. The deck feels stacked against Felt from the start—until she pulls herself into the biography, letting the book expand to include the intriguing tale of its own creation, and of its author’s quest for understanding a woman (and a discipline) she previously knew nothing about. Speaking about her painstaking yet meditative bouts of researching Tharp—trying to divine a portrait of this woman from a few quotes and bits of trivia—Felt falls into a poetic mode:

My imagination goes off running. Shapes, or rather the outlines of shapes—a house, a bed, a baby—drawn with thick crude lines. The outlines are facts. Or the facts are outlines? I’m not sure, but either way, I’m the one who comes in decades later—an adult with a steady hand, coloring everything bright, but staying inside those lines.


Felt owns her subjectivity. But she also maps and lives within its limits, just as Tharp so beautifully mapped the ocean floor. To her credit, Felt even acknowledges that parallel—the one between biographer and cartographer. Points can precisely graphed, but sometimes the contours that connect them must be intuited. By exercising that license, Felt breaks Le Guin’s rules, the ones distinguishing the fulfillment of the imagination from the betrayal of it.

In doing so, the fault of Le Guin’s argument is laid bare. Soundings honors the imaginations of both its author and its subject, and it accomplishes this feat in a lyrical way that reaches far deeper than Ricca manages in the less satisfying yet solidly entertaining Super Boys. If minor facts are being “created” by Felt, it’s not in the pursuit of aesthetic convenience—but of essential truths that aesthetic license is used to illuminate. If liberty-taking biographies such as Super Boys and Soundings are, to paraphrase Le Guin, nearer Oz than Cleveland or Columbia, they hit that much closer to home because of it.


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