Why It’s Hard to Write About Talented People: “What does the life have to do with the achievement?”

From the book The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas:

We biographers have always done our work amid a loud chorus of negativity. Oscar Wilde famously observed that biography “lends to death a new terror.” Joyce feared “biografiends.”…Then there was George Eliot who asked, “Is it not odious that as soon as a man is dead his desk is raked, and every significant memorandom which he never meant for the public is printed for the gossiping amusement of people too idle to read his books.”

Even members of the profession disparage it. Edmund White, the biographer of Jean Genet, called biography the revenge of the little people on the big people. And Michael Holroyd, after a lifetime of helping to elevate the form, has decided that biographers are “parasites…intent on reducing all that is imaginative, all that is creative in literature, to pedestrian biography.”…We trade on their fame.”…

What does the life have to do with the achievement? You can no more “explain” the sources of a person’s talent—what combination of temperament, cultural circumstances, parents, genes, history— than you can explain why were here in the first place. If talent is innate, the whole project can seem futile. Why do any of these random factors  matter when you’re dealing with someone whose endowments, whatever they were, made him worthy of a biography? Bellow said he was born with a gift for words and had no ideas where it came from. If that was true—which I think it was—what is there to explain. It was all in the biology. You might as well ask  how Bach wrote his cello suites, how Turner painted boats in a storm, or why the stars come out at night.

So what is the biographer’s purpose? Primarily, I would say, to show what other factors—besides genius—contributed to the making of the writer’s life, the genesis of his books, the social and literary influences that formed them.

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