Biography = Death

or, How Can I Profile You If You Won't Sit Still?

Most of us are familiar with the intrinsic and inescapable falsity of journalism, although some of my younger readers may still not be over the first shock of seeing how thoroughly a newspaper fucks up reporting their own hard-won easily-dismissed areas of expertise.

But the last month has brought especially to my attention the bizarre institutional compulsion to smudge out any trace of individual voice in the subject of a biography or a profile. (Note that it's not even a three-quarters face, but a "profile": there must be no chance for the subject to address the audience directly; at most, perhaps, a chance to mutter coded messages from the corner of the mouth.)

  1. I've been re-reading Noel Coward's memoirs as research for my pastiche-of-a-new-story, so, when in A Different Light I spotted the new, supposedly more "honest," sex-oriented joint bio with Cole Porter, I eagerly browsed, only to find the source material paradoxically dulled in transcription. Paraphrase of the subject's direct address is the most direct way to interfere with communication and ensure your own importance as interpreter.

    But what if your reader should check your footnotes and go searching for "primary source material"? No, no, heavens forfend; much more satisfying to play both sides against the vacuum which is yourself, to position yourself as the interface and then play Pygmalion taxidermist, to be the polarized glass protecting the too-disturbing portrait, and oh, could you paint over the glass while you're there?

  2. In the science fiction field, the longest running illustration of how a personality can be erased by simply removing its interlocutor is the deadly monthly interview in Locus: The Magazine of Unflattering Photographs. But a more outrageous (to the point of parody) example was recently forwarded my way by Samuel R. Delany, whose carefully written answers to a budding (somebody prune!) journalist were grotesquely absorbed into a pod-piece on "Sci-Fi (sic) Sam (sic)", each thought-provoking comment digested down to a tritely self-righteous complaint which had never actually been made, thus making room for expert testimony from Waldenbooks and B. Dalton proprietors.

  3. Finally, a week after I transcribed selections from Jack Stalnaker's fascinating 15-year collection of Tuesday Weld interviews (each of which had already survived, more or less, one cycle of journalistic transformation), I read a new "unauthorized" biography which managed, relying on the very same collection of source material, to miss the point in exemplary fashion. As I wrote to Stalnaker:
    Even just stringing the blatantly heterogeneous source material together (as I did on the Web) does a better job. In trying to turn his heap of clippings into a continuous narrative, the "author" carefully picked out every disconcerting thread of personality. Weld is obviously aware of, even self-destructively compulsive about, the fact that a star's life is not transmitted noise-free to an altruistic public by altruistic journalists, but is instead shaped to match journalists' own career goals and fans' own fantasies. To ignore that, as the bio hack does, is to ignore the supposed subject of his book in favor of exemplifying what she fights against.

Copyright 1995 Ray Davis, except for the Brenda Starr panel by Fradon & Schmich