Jobs Jobs Jobs
I’ve been reading reviews of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Or rather, I scan those reviews for comments on biography. Chris Rawson’s review caught my attention with these two paragraphs:
Reading biographies is perhaps a different experience for me than it is for most people, since I spent most of my Master’s thesis examining the concept of truth in biographical works. Most of the memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies I’ve read have fallen into one of two categories. Either the text was something designed to lionize its subject and make him or her seem larger than life, or else the writer had taken pains to focus on only the parts of the subject’s life that fit into a clean narrative arc while leaving everything else on the cutting room floor, an approach that leads to easy and almost cinematic storytelling but leaves out much of the facts.
Neither approach to biographical writing strikes me as particularly true; in fact, almost every biography I’ve read seems to contain about as much actual truth as an episode of Star Trek. The tendency to over-praise or over-dramatize is both pernicious and pervasive throughout the various forms of biographical texts.
I was nodding along with Rawson until the end of the first paragraph—and then I got really riled up with that Star Trek sentence, which, Chris, is just plain ridiculous. I don’t think you did enough reading of biographies, given the sweeping judgment you make about the truth-value of life writing. Of course, you’re right that biographies have a narrative arc, and that configuration means a good deal about the subject’s life will be left out because it does not fit the narrative. But all lives are narratives that we or our subjects make up. Those narratives have a truth to them—although not the whole truth, of course. Which is why the answer to one biography of Steve Jobs is another biography of Steve Jobs. We need to read different narratives, different takes on a protean life. If the narratives are sound, they do not leave out “much of the facts.” Rather, the facts are assembled in a variety of ways, sometimes to suit the particular talents of the biographer or the nature of the life the biographer believes is to be told.
I also don’t think there is anything wrong with overcorrection in biography, the use of praise or blame to shake up our views of a particular subject. Call this the thesis biography, or a biography predicated on a theme—for example, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, a book my wife, Lisa Paddock, and I wrote together. We announced our focus in the title, and I don’t see a problem there. Someday there will be quite another kind of biography written about Sontag, and that’s fine with me.
Rawson thinks that Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs is the “truest” biography Rawson has ever read. I had to smile because, Chris, if you turn to Joseph Nocera’s New York Times review of Isaacson, you’ll find he elaborates an argument that explains why Isaacson could not possibly get anywhere near the truth about Steve Jobs. So Chris Rawson, meet Joe Nocera. Neither of you is right. Joe, you’ll get the benefit of my wisdom in the next column.
For the rest of you, just let me say that with very few exceptions, even the greatest biographers get mixed reviews. The same biography is hailed by one critic as just about the best biography he ever read and by another as her candidate for the worst example of the genre.
Why should that be so? Stay tuned.
Books mentioned in this column:
Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. He is currently completing a biography of Dana Andrews and beginning work on a biography of Sylvia Plath. When not writing, he is playing with his three Scotties. Contact Carl.