Friday, 27 May 2016

Biographies - no thanks

I seldom read biog-raphies. I admire people for what they've created or achieved, but in most cases the details of their personal lives are irrelevant to the things I admire. What they've given the world is usually unique and extraordinary, while their daily comings and goings are mostly much like anyone else's and of limited interest.

Marriage, children, affairs, divorce, drugs, alcohol, money problems, mental illness. We've heard it a thousand times before, and it sheds little light on their brilliant paintings or films or plays or music.

I love Mark Rothko's paintings, for instance, but does it help to know that he killed himself by slashing his elbows, that he drank and smoked heavily, that he had a tense relationship with his wife, or that he had a heart problem? No, it adds nothing unless you're into fancy theories about great art stemming from neurosis or whatever.

Most biographies aren't meant to illuminate the person's achievements anyway. They're usually just a way to trade on someone's fame with a money-spinning best-seller. And some are of dubious reliability, cobbled together from all sorts of questionable sources and sometimes actively opposed by the person's family who dispute much of the content.

Quite often biographies are simply an excuse to name-drop copiously - how X had a long-running spat with famous artist Y or was royally swindled by famous art dealer Z. The banality of the average biography increases of course when it's turned into a film with a string of dramatic set-pieces that distort the reality even further.

So no, I rarely read biographies. Why waste the time when I could be enjoying the things the person is actually celebrated for? I'm sure Lionel Shriver would much rather I savoured her books than read about her adolescent weight gain.

PS: But I do enjoy fictitious faux biographies like William Boyd's Sweet Caress.

19 comments:

Wisewebwoman said...

I don't generalize on biographies. I learn so much about the creative process from dome boos. And of course all creative writing is autobiographical to a huge degree.

XO
WWW

Wisewebwoman said...

Damn you auto correct. *some bios*

XO
WWW

Nick said...

www: I always see the creative process as a very personal thing you either have or haven't, and not something you can learn. I think the only thing you can learn is how to tweak and polish and refine.

Bijoux said...

I've read some interesting ones and some awful ones. I've found autobiographies are the worst, probably because just because one is famous doesnt mean one can write.

Nick said...

Bijoux: Very true. But I thought most autobiographies were ghosted by professional writers anyway. I suppose some people fondly imagine their own writing is unputdownable!

Dave Martin said...

I've thoroughly enjoyed the autobiographies of Ronnie Wood and Guy Martin, but I could never lower myself to read anything about the sort of trash celebrities whose sole purpose in life is to promote themselves for no good reason.

Nick said...

Dave: Several people have recommended the Keith Richards autobiography, but I was put off by the sheer length. I liked Patti Smith's memoir of her time with Robert Mapplethorpe, which was very touching. But yes, trashy autobiogs by trashy celebs are just a depressing waste of ink and paper.

Rummuser said...

Some autobiographies are still among my favourites though no biographies feature in them. Since my taste tends to be on the nonfiction area, I avoid biographies too.

Nick said...

Ramana: When I do read a biography or autobiography, I always wonder how much of it is true and how much of it is heavily embellished or even invented. People like to put a flattering gloss on things - or for that matter exaggerate the misery and bad luck.

Helen Devries said...

I like autobiographies of the 'my life and times' sort - often the writer is telling you things about himself without realising it...

Biographies? Well,not trashy ones about trashy people....I'm about to give up on one about Arafat at the moment as it is wordy without having that spark necessary to bring the subject to life.

Nick said...

Helen: So many books nowadays are unnecessarily wordy. Too many writers get carried away and don't see the attraction of succinctness and crispness.

Nick said...

I have to admit I enjoyed "Amy", the film about Amy Winehouse, even though I have no idea how accurate it is. It shamelessly manipulated my emotions but it was enthralling.

Liz Hinds said...

I've just read The Invention of Wings, which is fiction based on real life people and their stories. I didn't realise that until I read the end notes. That's the sort of biography I enjoy.

In the past I've bought rugby biographies for Husband and they've all been rubbish. Even with 'stars' you think will be good writers and able to tell a story it rarely happens I find.

Ms Scarlet said...

I've never read a biography. This is all I have to say on the matter.
Sx

Nick said...

Liz: I wouldn't expect "stars" to be good writers. Just because they're good at something or other, it doesn't mean they can write. Writing is a very specific skill, I think. As I said above, I assume most "stars" hire a ghost writer to write their books, as they know very well their writing skills are non-existent.

Scarlet: A very wise decision. Most of them are of dubious accuracy with more than a sprinkling of downright lies.

Jacqueline @ HOME said...

It's the ones by Z celebrity 20 something's that get me { not that I've ever read one ! } They have hardly lived much of their life and think that we would all like to read about the few years of their life that might have a bit of interest to them !!!! I remember reading ' The Moon's a Balloon ', David Niven's biography .... that was good as he had many amusing stories ..... and, as much as I don't like harping back to the past, a celebrity was a celebrity in those days and most famous people wether they were actor's, artists or musician's, usually had some talent. XXXX

Nick said...

Jacqueline: I agree, when we were young celebrities had to earn their fame by being genuinely clever at something. Now so many celebs are merely famous for being famous and have as much talent as a lampshade. Especially attractive young women who get huge media coverage for mediocre music or acting while their middle-aged counterparts are often ignored.

Liz Hinds said...

I agree that some stars would have ghost-writers but, in that case, why are the books so bad?

I ghost-wrote a biography and it was good! (A Cop for Christ, since you asked, available on Amazon.)

Nick said...

Liz: Good question. They must have employed a ghost-writer almost as inept as themselves. I imagine the best ghost-writers are horribly expensive, but surely wealthy celebs can afford them?