Reviewing Biographies


Carl Rollyson

I am in the dreaded stage of awaiting reviews of Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews. So far so good. The reviews in the blogs have been excellent, TCM (Turner Classic Movies) has been featuring my book in on-the-air promos and in its newsletter and bookstore, and now two excellent reviews—one in the Washington Post and one in the Wall Street Journal—have put me in a stratospheric mood. Oh, and did I mention the five-star reviews on Amazon? The last time I checked the book had a #2 ranking in the movies and criticism category in the Kindle store. The only way I have been able to return to earth is by reading the one two-star review that says my book is boring.

Since I have been the subject of negative reviews in the past, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. If you judged me only by the reviews of, say, my Hellman, Gellhorn, and Sontag biographies, you might think, “a pretty pedestrian biographer.” If you looked, instead, at the reviews of my Marilyn Monroe, Rebecca West, and Jill Craigie biographies—let’s just say you might have a higher opinion, although even with those books I took some knocks. The reviewer in the Financial Times called my Rebecca West biography “unreadable.”

Which raises the question: How could the same person have provoked such varying responses? A complex of factors filter into reviews. I can’t speak for other authors, but here is what I have learned:

  1. Sometimes my subjects get reviewed, not me. A reviewer hates Lillian Hellman and so hates my book too. The reviewer likes Lillian Hellman and so also likes my book.
  2. The reviewer either has nothing to say about my book, or does not know how to say it, and so gives a book report—meaning he or she merely repeats what’s in my book, writing, in effect, not a review but a profile of my subject.
  3. The review is really about the reviewer. That is, the reviewer asserts authority by distilling the biographer’s work, presenting it as the reviewer’s own expertise, and then rendering a judgment, positive or negative, on the biography.
  4. The reviewer has in mind what a biography of the subject should look like. The biography does not conform to the reviewer’s vision. Instead of reviewing the book at hand, the reviewer complains that the biography is disappointing or worse.
  5. The reviewer is mainly interested in just one aspect of the subject—let’s say the subject's politics. If the biographer's politics do not match the reviewer's, the biographer will not get a good review.
  6. The reviewer does not like biography, period, and will make snide remarks about biographers as second-raters or even worse.
  7. There can be problems with positive, enthusiastic reviews, but, honestly, what author wants to complain about those?
  8. In very rare cases, a reviewer and a biographer seem to share the same wave-length. This usually happens because an astute assigning editor actually picks someone who can write about both the subject of the biography and the biographer’s approach. The result is not necessarily a positive review of the book, but in most cases the outcome is likely to please the biographer.

I could go on, but as Billy Crystal says, “Don’t get me started.”

Books mentioned in this column:
Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews by Carl Rollyson (University Press of Mississippi, 2012)


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. His Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews is now out and American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath in the spring of 2013. He is currently writing a biography of Amy Lowell. When not writing, he is playing with his Scottie, Nick. Contact Carl.



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