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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

 

Author biographies

The other day I was reading a book by an author unfamiliar to me, and enjoying it rather a lot. The writing was picturesque, the atmosphere was enjoyable, and it was an all-round pleasant experience - so pleasant, in fact, that I decided to look up the author on Amazon to see if they'd written anything else.

As it turned out, they hadn't; this was their first novel. But what they had written, evidently, was their own author biography. Now, there's nothing unusual in that; I wrote my own author biographies, and I suspect the same applies to more or less everybody: authors know the facts about their own lives and are presumably coherent enough to write a book, so they're the best people to get on the job.

The trouble is, unless you've done something in your life that's both interesting and relevant to the book, there really isn't a lot to say. Here's the UK biography for my first book:

Bareback is Kit Whitfield's first novel. A graduate of Christ's College, Cambridge, she completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. She lives in London.

And to tell you the truth, the only reason I included that middle sentence about my university degrees was that I simply couldn't think of anything else to say, and 'This is Kit Whitfield's first novel and she lives in London' was embarrassingly bald. The second book's biog wasn't much more fulsome:

Kit Whitfield is a graduate of Christ's College, Cambridge and completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Her first novel, Bareback (published in the US as Benighted) was shortlisted for the Author's Club Best First Novel Award and longlisted for the Waverton Good Read Award. She lives in London. 

Not particularly interesting stuff, really. The educational stuff was still in there because I only had one other book to talk about; the only reason it's longer is that by this point I had a couple of things to say that supported the only point an author biography is really about, which is to suggest that the author is capable of writing a decent book.

The thing is, there are two ways you can push that point. The first is listing accolades, which is what I did: this author has an education, this author has written something that other people officially liked. The second is a concept one sees more and more of as blogging and other social media become popular, and particularly social media that allow people to interact with strangers: what I tend to call the performance of personality.

When one has a soapbox, one needs a persona. Everybody does it. Ceci n'est pas Kit Whitfield; ceci est Kit Whitfield's blogging voice, which is not the same thing as her novel voice, which is not the same thing as her speaking voice, which is not the same thing as her. But in a crowded field where everybody's fighting for attention, it becomes tempting to go for an exaggerated persona, to foreground certain qualities in a simplistic way ... and when it comes to author biographies, it's a risky business.

So it was with this book I'd been reading and enjoying. The author biography was full of cute little details about the author's quirks and whims; a biog not about what the author had done, but about what the author owned - or rather, a description of the author's lifestyle. Rather than quote, I'll parody myself:

Kit Whitfield lives in a study shed in London surrounded by a collection of home-made shadow puppets known as the Pointy People, and occasionally goes into the house. She has a husband, a son, a cat who has more fans than Kit and doesn't let her forget it, and too many books for her shelf space. 

All more or less true, allowing for comic exaggeration, but of an entirely different style, and one that I'd be unwilling to use on a book. It sounds nothing like my novelistic style, and it doesn't suit the books. Of course, it's perfectly understandable that a first-time author might feel the pressure to sound interesting, and perfectly probable that they might have led a pretty quiet and unremarkable life; after all, a bit of peace and quiet is what you need if you're going to get anything written. And as we all have our little ways, most of us have a habit or two we can dress up to sound charmingly whimsical if it comes to it. There are situations where it can work to the author's advantage, two in particular: first, if the author is an established star, in which case a low-key, personal biography can sound disarming and self-deprecating, retaining the charm of modesty while paradoxically flaunting that the author needs no introduction, and second, if the author is a comic writer who is able to write a genuinely funny blurb that functions as a demonstration of their talents in action.

But if one is neither of those things, it tends to sound a bit ... desperate to be liked.

Which authors are, of course; being liked is your living. But the problem is this: plenty of quite lovely and fascinating people write quite dreadful books, and it's perfectly possible to have a 'writerly' persona without being able to write. Playing up a 'writerly' persona in an author biog is like putting 'poet' in one's letterhead: by not letting the work speak for itself, it shows a lack of confidence in that work - or rather, a lack of commitment to that work, a lack of acceptance that it's the work rather than the worker that people will be reading. Unless you're Oscar Wilde, your social persona has very little to do with the writing you produce, and presenting it as if it proves that your writing will be interesting doesn't sound focused. It's all about the book, the finished product; 'death of the author' is a phrase much misused in popular culture, but it does remain the fact that it's the book, not a relationship with the author, that a reader is going to consume. There are people who write to write, and there are people who write to 'be writers', and it's the former kind of person whose writing you actually want to read, and biographies that play up just how whimsical and writerly the author is tend to make you sound like the latter, even if you're not.

I read the author biog, and then I carried on reading the book I'd been so enjoying. And ... well, I still enjoyed it; it was imaginative and vivid in points and that hadn't changed. But little things started to stand out to me, things that I'd found easier to ignore before. Points where the logic of the plot had been scamped. Points where the author was, as Virginia Woolf put it, 'thinking of something other than the thing itself.' Woolf was writing of female novelists breaking off from their story to address the then-burning question of whether a woman could write at all:

One has only to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism; she was saying this by way of aggression, or that by way of conciliation. She was admitting that she was "only a woman," or protesting that she was ''as good as a man." She met that criticism as her temperament dictated, with docility and diffidence, or with anger and emphasis. It doesn't matter which it was; she was thinking of something other than the thing itself. Down comes her book upon our heads. There was a flaw in the centre of it. And I thought of all the women's novels that lie scattered, like small pock-marked apples in an orchard, about the second-hand book shops of London. It was the flaw in the center that had rotted them. She had altered her values in deference to the opinion of others.
(A Room of One's Own, chapter four.)

But while the issue of whether women can write has been conclusively dismissed by now, there's always the question of whether I can write, whether you can write, whether this particular person sitting at the desk trying to come up with something can write or not. One may not be criticised for one's gender, but there is always the knowledge that criticism of bad writing exists and one might be about to incur some. I'm not saying, of course, that criticising bad writing is morally akin to dismissing female intelligence: it's a sin to tell a lie and of the statements 'Women are too stupid to write' and 'Bad writing is bad writing', only one is untrue. Insecurity, though, comes in many forms. And it can come for many writers - as it did for this one - in little asides, little diversions, moments in which the act of reading was elevated beyond what the plot required, moments in which the act of appreciating the picturesque things the book came up with was pushed as making someone special. Moments, in short, where the author lost focus on writing the book and started preaching about why people should read the book and why they were justified in writing it. Moments where they were thinking of something other than the thing itself.

And it was there in their biography: the biography was about something other than the thing itself, because it was about the writer, not the writing. Biographies are only nominally about their subject, when it comes to author blurbs. What they really are is a showcase for how the author navigates the difference between self-as-writer and self-as-self - the difference between writer as person-who-writes and writer as person-who-occupies-social-role.

There is such a thing as a personal author biography that showcases a writer's style, of course, and as long as it's writing style rather than lifestyle, that's appropriate. And there's such a thing as an artist whose persona is one of their works of art. But if an artist is going to do that well, they need to make sure that the persona complements their work rather than consuming it. A persona is a dangerous thing to put alongside serious work because its focus is out towards an audience rather than in towards the imagination: performing introspection is a paradox at the best of times, and it takes both focus and talent - a specific kind of talent that doesn't necessarily go with the talent to write a book - to to keep the paradox from collapsing into triteness and twee.

Books have to speak for themselves. Author biographies do best when they don't get in their way.

Comments:
A few years ago, I wrote myself an author bio as an exercise. It went something like: "Nick Kiddle was born in Norwich in 1978. He has a degree in Physics from the University of Liverpool, and is a die-hard supporter of Scunthorpe United." I don't think there's anything too would-be-quirky there, except for the obligatory Scunthorpe reference, but it is pretty strongly about me.

My thinking was that readers might want to locate me, to figure out whether I was older or younger than them and where I came from, so that information might be useful to them. It seems like it falls somewhere between your examples.
 
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