• Author Biographies: Yea or Nay?

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 44 comments

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    Discussion questions: Do you read biographies of your favorite authors? What do you get out of them as a reader? What do you get out of them as a writer? Do you have a favorite? If you (like me) don’t read author bios, why not? If you had to read one, which writer would you choose? If someone wrote your biography, what would you want its title to be?! In the comments below, let us know all of this and whatever else is on your mind. 


    I went through a brief Hemingway phase in high school, reading A Farewell to Arms for class and The Old Man and the Sea and The Sun Also Rises on my own time. (Seriously, how good with titles was that guy?) Somewhere during that time my mom thunked a 600-page Hemingway bio on my desk and said I should read it.

    I was like Umm, why?

    Sure, he had an interesting life. Much of which I can discover by reading his own work — he wrote about his life plenty, in nonfiction(ish) such as A Moveable Feast and in much of his fiction.

    Yes, that’s Hemingway’s own take on Hemingway, and according to Hemingway, Hemingway could do little wrong.

    But even if he’d never written about his life I still wouldn’t care to read someone else’s (likely slanted) reporting on it. If I’m going to spend 600 pages’ worth of my reading life with Hemingway, I want it to be spent reading Hemingway. Or reading about his work itself.

    Your turn: Name a writer as good as or better than Hemingway with book titles. What do you think of Hemingway? Would you read a 600-page bio of his life?


    Goodbye, 900-Page Roth Bio

    There’s a new 900-page biography of Philip Roth. I’ve read about 80 pages of Roth in my life, or however long Goodbye, Columbus is. And I have little to no further interest in him.

    But my friend and fellow Yak Baby Aaron loves Philip Roth. Philip Roth is his favorite writer, in fact. And in a recent episode of the podcast, he tells me he plans to read the new Roth bio… even though he hasn’t even finished all of Roth’s own work.

    I don’t judge this! I hope Aaron reads the Roth bio and enjoys it. I just can’t manage to think my way into that level of interest in a writer outside of that writer’s own work. There are plenty of writers whose work I’ve read and reread and will continue to reread, but none of them as people intrigue me to that degree.

    I love Zadie Smith. I’ve read all of her novels. Here is the order in which I’d be interested in reading more:

    1. The books themselves, a second time

    2. A critical analysis of the books

    3. Anything Smith has written about the writing of the books

    4. Smith’s current to-do/grocery list

    5. A 900-page collection of Zadie Smith’s letters

    6. A 900-page bio, even if it includes details about the books and about Smith’s life while she wrote them

    Maybe I just haven’t found my Philip Roth.

    Or, more likely, I’m far more interested in any given writer’s fictional worlds than I am in that writer’s reality.


    Your Turn!

    Who is your Philip Roth? If you could (or had to!) read a biography of any writer, which writer would you choose and why?

    If you do read author biographies, do you have a favorite? What do you get out of them as a reader? What do you get out of them as a writer?

    If someone were to write your biography, what would you want its title to be?


    david blog

    WriteByNight writing coach and co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

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    I too started to read a bio on Hemingway but lost interest a short ways in. I wasn’t a fan of his writing so why read about his life? I read bio on Mark Twain. Very interesting. I must add I was married to a 19th century literature professor. His interest was Nathaniel Hawthorne. The minutia of ones career as a writer after such in-depth study comes down to being only trivia of daily living which everyone lives in the day to day business of living. But I guess being a writing is even more trivial because a writer lives… Read more »


    I mostly agree with you, Dave, about author biographies. As with biographies in general, I’m interested in them if, for some reason, I want to know that person’s story. And that’s usually because I perceive their life as connected in some way to some other theme. M. Ghandi’s ideas on nonviolence and civil disobedience, for example, and how effective they were in freeing India, how much he pulled from Thoreau, etc. Even so, I’ve never read a biography of Ghandi. As I mentioned in my YB reply, I did read a bio of JRR Tolkien and enjoyed it. What made… Read more »


    Actually, I wouldn’t mind reading Tolkien’s bio again. I thought the movie they did of his life was OK. Also, I’d be interested in Eric Blair’s life story (George Orwell) because life experience prompted his hatred of empire. And I think Cervantes led a pretty interesting life that infused his writing.


    I look forward to hearing you guys’ take on 1984. I think some of your best episodes are when you discuss classics. I started “Brave New World,” but couldn’t get into it as much as 1984. I may try it again. I have read maybe half of Don Quixote, mostly from the Norton Anthology abridged version. I like it, but I probably should do a more thoughtful read.


    Dang! Missed the prequel.
    I did not finish BNW. I did not dig it as much as 1984, but I realize some aspects of it may be even more relevant to today than 1984. I will likely give it another chance.


    Like you, David, I like reading stories rather than biographies, but I have enjoyed novels that are known to be entirely autobiographical, like Look Homeward, Angel and The Bell Jar. I think some people’s true lives are just more storylike. I also have enjoyed memoirs about a certain event or period in an author’s life that had profound meaning to them. . After my parents passed, Joan DIdion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, about grieving her husband’s loss, helped me a lot and was beautifully written. Now, somehow I have ascertained a copy of My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley,… Read more »


    It was written by Susan Orlean. It is great. Rin Tin Tin, The Life and the Legend. Do you have a copy of the autobiography to loan me? I kinda feel, seriously, his movies were like his autobiography. I have read that dog could really act, not just dog-training stuff, but understanding what to do in a scene and show complex emotion. He was amazing.

    Christina Del Pozzo

    Given the option of reading 900 pages of someone’s opinion of their own success or 9 months of personal conversations with the same person, I would choose face-to-face conversation. I would never write an autobiography, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t interject myself and/or those around me into a fictional book. It’s a case of “what-if” I had zigged instead of zagged. What would the outcome have been?

    Barbara Mealer

    Unless it’s the short blurb about the author, I’ll say no thank you. I did read Stephen Kings autobiography “On Writing” but it was for the advice he threw in throughout the book. I’ll not waste time reading what someone else thinks about the author and their life, especially if I didn’t really care for their books the first time around. I love Michener, but I know all I really want to know about him. He took up to 10 years to research each book to have them based in facts and what he would discover about the culture of… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    He spent time in each place he wrote about, getting a feel from the topography and the culture. He did write a memoir in 1992, “The World is My Home” and is 500+ pages, starting in the South Pacific and going through how he found his locations for his next book. He started writing in 1939 and continued writing until his death at 90 in 1997. I love his writing, but I’ll be honest in how I honestly didn’t know who many books he had written…over 40 with the last major book published in 1995 and one short story posthumously… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    Not even close to reading all 40+ books. I’ve read 11 of his fiction and none of the non-fiction. In contrast, I’ve read 12 of the Belador series and starting on the 5 Treoir Dragon books by Diana Love. I got through 3 of the Outlander series then got bored with it. The same with the Reacher series, the harlequin romances, etc. I get bored when they all seem the same and the characters aren’t changing a lot, usually after 3 books. I like Michener because they aren’t a series and each book is totally different.

    Barbara Mealer

    Alaska, Texas and Hawaii after the first chapter. South Pacific was good as was the Bridges at Toko-Ri.

    Pia Manning

    It’s rare that I need to know about an author’s life. I’m much more interested in my next read. It makes me wonder, though, why so much of the time authors are told that readers want to make a connection and ‘interact’ with an author.

    Pia Manning

    I approached the question more from a marketing prospective. If I’m going to put something on a website, or purchase an ad, what will be the focus? Autobiographical, or my work product? As you say, we only have so much time. We also only have so much cash to throw at our publishing endeavors. The research I’ve done suggests two schools of thought. Readers want their next good book vs Readers want to know about the author. Just from reading the responses here, I suggest the former is more the norm than the later.


    Over the years, I have only been interested in the biographies of one writer. In my twenties I fell in love with Truman Capote and I read everything I could get my hands on by him and about him. Including a fat biography. Capote is one of only two “celebrities” that have made an appearance in my night time dreams.


    Hahaha! The other celebrity was Tony Soprano, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.

    Elissa Malcohn

    The first author biography (read: autobiography) that stands out for me is Studs Terkel’s Talking To Myself. I adore his work, and his memoir is no exception. I also highly enjoyed Mary Daly’s memoir Outercourse. So, too, the journals of Abraham Maslow. Their common denominator is that they weren’t known as fiction writers. Decades ago I had read and enjoyed the diary of Anais Nin, but I have not yet read her fiction and she ultimately became better known for her diary. Two author biographies that I enjoyed come to mind: Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John by Sally Cline, and Isak Dinesen: The Life… Read more »

    Elissa Malcohn

    Ooh, not yet! The one Sayles film I’m familiar with is Brother from Another Planet (highly recommended).

    BTW, I’m now devouring Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. Fabulous book. Thanks for mentioning it.

    Elissa Malcohn

    PS: Speaking of authors’ lives versus their fiction, I’ve just passed the point in the Saunders where he compares Tolstoy’s moral/ethical fiction to what T’s wife has written about him in her diary. :-)

    Janet Schwartz

    In general, I am not a fan of biographies or autobiographies. I love to live in fiction. Why? Reality is not always a ray of sunshine and reading about someone else’s cloudy days does not sound appealing to me.
    If I had to choose an autobiography (my preference because biographies have lots of room for error), then I would choose Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series. Her writing style and method of writing speaks to me, and I could see myself possibly picking that autobiography up to read.

    Kenneth Harris

    Never had much interest in the bio of writers. Like a good chef, if the coq au vin is memorable, the events that put them in the kitchen are secondary. Writing about their own politics, college antics or how they met your mother are like the label in a wine bottle; both present an edited past and a bright future ahead for the consumer.

    Kenneth Harris

    Well, if I had a knife held to my eye and had to read an author’s bio (that hasn’t yet been written) I’d pick Jay McInerney. His long time association with New York city’s glitterati and deep immersion in the city’s social whirl would likely make for a good read. Plus, he penned a smash hit novel at age 34 and did it in 192 pages. Maybe that economy of writing would apply to his life’s story, thereby limiting the unpleasantness for all concerned. If I had to write one, I’d pick the rascally Ben Franklin and focus on the… Read more »


    I’ve read biographies on Edgar Allan Poe, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sextant

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