By Nigel Hamilton
Asked to write something for the 30th anniversary issue of Auto/Biography Studies on the theme “What Next?” I first balked, then wrote something. Was thanked and was then asked gently to get to the point, i.e. where we are going. So reluctantly I added more, looking ahead….
How, though, convey in a few words the rich field that is opening before our very eyes – but to which, as academics, we cannot do justice, since biography is still not accepted as its own interdisciplinary field in the academy?
I couldn’t – or only summarily.
One of the most promising and exciting areas of biographical study, I predict, though, will be the no-man’s land between biographical fact and fiction – a land that is continually increasing in mass.
I have not seen reliable statistics but I would wager that, over the past dozen years, the number of real-life, named figures in fiction has doubled, at the very least – and is now increasing exponentially. If we include screen (biopics), stage dramas (thesbios), as well as romans à clef, based-on real characters, (parabios) we could be talking revolution. As in Lin-Miranda’s latest play Hamilton which has been sensationally successful on Broadway and – like a boomerang – is now arcing back as a best-selling book.
Creative writing teachers are already fascinated by this shapeshifting, in a world where all kinds of boundaries are easing, even disappearing. But what are we, as students of biography, doing to teach this phenomenon, and the many questions it raises for biography?
What exactly, we ask ourselves, is really going on? Are novelists running out of characters to invent? Or is the public fascination with celebrities – at least in the West – such that novelists and their publishers are retreating, pour mieux sauter: reckoning that the stories biographers relate are stranger or stronger than fiction, and can be exploited in fiction, or dramatization? Are they trading, literally, on the dropping of names the public will recognize, and be curious about such fictionalized, dramatized stories – a first pivot or sales guarantee in their pocket?
Surely, though, it must go deeper than this?
One avenue of research the Société de Biographie might sponsor or encourage is the interviewing of fiction-writers – asking them directly: why are you choosing to present real people in your fiction so much today? Do you not see a possible danger, in that you may – if you are not a serious biographer – completely misunderstand, or may misconstrue the real life of the individual you portray? How do you think this will impact our culture and society? (For example, Hilary Mantel, in Wolf Hall, her fictional portrait of Thomas Cromwell, the chief of staff to King Henry VIII.) Do you even care, if it allows you to create an artistic masterpiece? (And be paid better, in the process, for having chosen a celebrity.) What exactly causes you to take that risk today?
I am no novelist, so am unwilling to guess. Nevertheless I love reading fiction – especially as an antidote, even escape, from my clinical study of real lives. So I find myself intrigued – unwilling to be too judgmental as a biographer, or biographer trained as an historian. When I read stories or accounts of prominent novels’ backstories in a newspaper – especially where the subjects are, or were, real people – I find myself intrigued.
One such article appeared this week in the New York Times. It was titled (in the print edition) “Childhood Fixation Becomes a Novel,” and its subtitle was “Emma Cline’s Manson Obsession.”
Emma is all of 27. Her debut novel is The Girls. Interviewed by Alexandra Alter, Ms. Cline said she traces her obsession back to the age of 7, when her parents used to drive her past San Quentin State Prison, where Charles Manson is still incarcerated. “That’s Manson’s House,” they’d say.
True to the tide of feminism and postfeminism sweeping our culture these past five decades, Emma was more curious about Manson’s “willing executioners” – his female acolytes – than about the psychopathic cult leader himself. “I felt everyone had heard enough of that story,” she told Ms. Alter. The monster’s “accomplices and devotees seemed like footnotes in his story,” she protested. She had lived in a small, commune-like family herself, with seven siblings – “extremely chaotic and feral,” as she put it. After failing to make much headway as an actress, she went to Columbia University’s MFA creative writing program – and The Girls was the result, garnering a million-dollar advance and screen rights sold on the way.
I, of course, would like to know more about this aspect of invention (and Ms. Cline). Where, though, can I study the business of being a biographer, in the same way as Ms. Cline learned at Columbia to be a novelist? Why are there no similar schools and programs for aspiring biographers, fascinated by truth?
But back to the point: the way true-life stories or potential stories are becoming the go-to dinner for aspiring fiction writers. According to Ms. Alter of the New York Times, Emma Cline’s novel The Girls is “arriving in the middle of a new wave of Manson-themed entertainment” – with Mansons’ Lost Girls, a TV-drama broadcast only last February, and a forthcoming TV series called “Aquarius,” about a fictional detective investigating Manson…. Plus two feature films on Manson already in the works!
Most will rely on the work of real biographers of real people, such as Jeff Gunn’s 2013 Manson – or, in Miranda’s case, Ron Chernow’s Hamilton. How ironic, then, that Ms. Cline’s and Mr. Miranda’s productions will become the stuff of Columbia University MFA dissection, as time goes on – but no-one, in the academy, will be examining such translations in terms of biography and the quest for truth!
Why are we, who are devoted to biography and the study of real lives, not teaching this phenomenon from our standpoint, as guardians of the search for the true stories of our own and of others’ lives in our modern culture (however tough the search for truth)?
Where are colleges and universities in the bid not only to examine popular culture, but to preserve, if possible, certain aspects crucial to our humanity – to truth as opposed to myth (however seductive, interesting or artistic the myth)?
As I ended my short piece for Auto/Biography Studies: “In biography’s house there are many mansions. One day real students will, I hope, be encouraged to enter.”
Nigel Hamilton is author of Biography: A Brief History (2007), and How To Do Biography: A Primer (2008). Dr. Hamilton is Senior Fellow in the McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts Boston.