Reading Biographical Fiction

Michael Lackey on the popularity of the biographical novel, and what it can tell us about the relationship between literature, history and truth
Michael Lackey, The American Biographical Novel (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Michael Lackey, The American Biographical Novel (Bloomsbury, 2016)

What motivated you to write The American Biographical Novel

Through my reading of biographical novels, I noticed a shift in the nature of literary truth.  In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad illuminates the colonial mentality that enabled Europeans to plunder Africa and to abuse Africans with impunity.  Conrad represents that mentality through Kurtz, and as the narrator says, “all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.”  In essence, if we want to understand the European mentality that justified colonization and its horrific outcomes, we can look to Kurtz for some answers.  But with the rise of postmodernism, there has been growing skepticism about the traditional literary symbol.

Put simply, postmodernists question the value of an overarching truth claim, because they realize that someone constructed that truth for an ideological or political reason.  This approach to truth impacted the traditional literary symbol, so a postmodernist could easily say: “Look, Joe, you constructed the character of Kurtz in order to promote your own ideological agenda.  Therefore, I don’t see any reason why I should consider a character like Kurtz as symbolic of the European mind.”It is my contention that biographical novelists were becoming increasingly aware of the problems with the traditional literary symbol, but they also did not want to get rid of the literary symbol, because they realized that it could be effectively used to expose the structures and conditions of oppression. 

Take, for instance, Barbara Chase-Riboud’s novel Sally Hemings, which focuses on Thomas Jefferson’s thirty-eight-year relationship with his slave. The affair began when Jefferson was forty-five and Hemings was fifteen, and she bore him many children over the years.  But how can we explain the fact that Jefferson authored “The Declaration of Independence,” which holds that all people should have the right to liberty and happiness, and yet, Jefferson never liberated Hemings?  What mentality enabled Jefferson to live this contradiction?  By picturing Jefferson’s interactions with Hemings, Chase-Riboud answers these questions.  But more importantly, Chase-Riboud converts Jefferson into a literary symbol, which readers can then use to understand the racist mentality that has operated within the United States from its inception to the present.  What makes Chase-Riboud’s literary symbol of Jefferson different from a traditional literary symbol, like Conrad’s Kurtz, is the fact that he is an actual historical figure.  Therefore, it is harder to accuse someone like Chase-Riboud of concocting a literary symbol that merely serves her ideological agenda.  I decided to write The American Biographical Novel in order to explore and develop this idea, and I chose to focus on American authors because I had already read and taught so many biographical novels by them.

“I have often been puzzled by this view that postmodernists dispense with truth.  To my mind, the better way to think about this is to say: Now that there is no longer any ultimate, absolute, or dominant Truth that subsumes all other truths, there has been a proliferation of truth systems.”

Many say that ours is a “post-truth” era, that postmodernism means the death or the end of truth.  It seems that you would disagree. 

f85b7-nietzsche_1561170c
Friedrich Nietzsche

I have often been puzzled by this view that postmodernists dispense with truth.  To my mind, the better way to think about this is to say: Now that there is no longer any ultimate, absolute, or dominant Truth that subsumes all other truths, there has been a proliferation of truth systems.  It was Nietzsche who best expressed why this happened.  Nietzsche claimed that truth is an illusion which we have forgotten is an illusion.  In short, truth exists, but it exists as an illusion.  Let’s take a specific example to illustrate: Women are inferior beings who are defective in reason.  That is a truth claim.  But instead of treating such an assertion as universally valid and ontologically correct, Nietzsche asks us to think about the origin of that claim.  Who made it?  And for what purpose?  The answer: Aristotle made it, and Aquinas and Kant gave the idea force and dimension.  That is their truth (illusion) about women, and for someone like Nietzsche, who certainly had his own issues and problems with women, it is important to keep in mind that that truth is just a provisional conceptual illusion.  It does not tell us what women are.  Rather, it tells us how a certain group of men constructed a conceptual system about women.  Therefore, instead of thinking that we live in a post-truth era, the lesson of postmodernism is that we live in a multi-truth age.  There has been a proliferation of truth systems: feminist truths, Marxist truths, Christian truths, atheist truths, biological truths, fascist truths, Trumpist truths, etc.  The questions we in the postmodern age should be asking are: Who constructed these particular truth systems?  How do they function?  Who benefits from them?  Who suffers?

Given this approach, can you clarify how biographical fiction can help us to understand and negotiate the relationship between truth and fiction in the twenty-first century?

The biographical novelist Russell Banks has given us an excellent way to answer this question.  In an interview, he says that authors and readers enter into a tacit truth contract.  When you read a biography, the author cannot say that a person was born in 1900 if he or she was actually born in 1882.  The tacit agreement between the author and reader of biography prohibits such a flagrant misrepresentation.  But biographical novelists change all kinds of truths: in The Danish Girl, the protagonist is married to an American woman, while in real life, Einar Wegener married a Danish woman; in Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, Minerva Mirabal slaps the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujllo in the face, while in real life, no such slap occurred; in Banks’ Cloudsplitter, Owen Brown tells his story in the year 1903, while in real life, Brown died in 1889.  Biographical novelists take liberties with established facts, and readers allow them to do so, because biographical novelists have a different truth contract with readers than do biographers.  To be more specific, the biographical novelist converts the subject into a literary symbol that could represent far more than just the life of the biographical subject.  For that symbol to function effectively, biographical novelists sometimes make strategic changes to the protagonist’s life story.  Biographers do not convert their subject into a symbol, so they are not free to make such wanton changes.  Given that biographical novelists are more interested in the symbolic meaning rather than the literal truth about the historical figure, readers should be asking: what is the author doing with the life of this historical figure?  How can this person’s life tell me something about who I am today?  And how do the strategic changes to the person’s life contribute to the novelist’s symbolic representation and usage of the protagonist?  In short, the biographical novelist demands that readers think more carefully and critically about the way fictional choices contribute to an author’s construction of a specific truth system.

“Biographical novelists take liberties with established facts, and readers allow them to do so, because biographical novelists have a different truth contract with readers than do biographers.”

 What does this genre owe to European traditions?

The biographical novel is a response and answer to the severe limitations of the historical novel, which is a dominant form in the European literary tradition.  According to the Marxist critic Georg Lukács, the historical novel features an invented figure that represents a “historical-social” type.  The goal of the historical novelist is to use this invented figure in order to symbolically represent the societal forces that shape and determine consciousness.  This enables the historical novelist to illuminate what made major historical collisions possible.  Biographical novelists, who have actual historical figures as their protagonists, hold that humans are not so clearly and easily determined by external forces. To the contrary, they tend to foreground the degree to and the sense in which a resisting and active consciousness shapes and determines the social and political world.  Therefore, biographical novelists oftentimes chart the shifts and transformations in consciousness that lead to major historical events.

There is a chapter in your book about Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Can you explain how this chapter sheds light on biofiction?

In this chapter, I contrast Ray Monk’s wonderful biography about Wittgenstein and Bruce Duffy’s spectacular biographical novel The World as I Found It.  Both writers note that Wittgenstein was Jewish, but they also point out that Wittgenstein was an anti-Semite, whose negative views of Jews were stunningly similar to Hitler’s and the Nazis’.  Given this fact, Monk specifies the limits of what we can and cannot say about Wittgenstein’s anti-Semitism—Wittgenstein held anti-Semitic views, but documentary evidence does not permit us to say that his anti-Semitism had any impact beyond himself.  Wittgenstein’s anti-Semitism is a much more troublesome affair in Duffy’s novel.  To visually represent a dark undercurrent in Wittgenstein’s thought, Duffy creates the fictional character of Max Einer, Wittgenstein’s friend and disciple.  But this character becomes a member of the SS, thus symbolizing that Wittgenstein’s anti-Semitic ideas align with the Nazis’ anti-Semitic political agenda.  By the end of the novel, when Wittgenstein reflects on the nature of his thinking and influence, he cannot help but wonder if he inadvertently and unwittingly contributed to the anti-Semitic ideology that made Hitler and the Nazis possible. What makes Duffy’s novel so powerful and different from a biography is that he uses character structure rather than documentary evidence to construct his narrative.  Given what Wittgenstein said and did, can we make some logical inferences about how he would have behaved in a wide variety of settings?  Duffy answers this question through his portrait of Wittgenstein in The World as I Found It.  Based on the nature of Wittgenstein’s character structure, Duffy concludes: Wittgenstein certainly had a major impact in his day, and if it is true that his work aligned with Nazi ideology, then it would stand to reason that he contributed—however tangentially and inadvertently—to the anti-Semitism of his age, which manifested itself most clearly through the Nazis’ atrocities.  A biographical novel can vividly portray this in a way that the biography cannot.

What kind of writers or thinkers most influenced your thinking about biofiction?

Above all else, Friedrich Nietzsche, Virginia Woolf, and Walter Benjamin have impacted me.  The nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries witnessed the rise of positivisms: historical positivism, logical positivism, scientific positivism, psychological positivism, etc.  But thinkers like Nietzsche, Woolf, and Benjamin, while they honored and respected the scientific and the empirical, also considered such rationalist models limited and reductive, so they challenged us to think about the ways in which systems of knowledge are set up and they frequently disrupted neat and tidy systems of thought.  Ultimately, what these three did in their work was to preserve a sense of human mystery and individual agency without simultaneously validating the supernatural and/or the divine.  It is this complex and disruptive system of knowledge that led to the rise of biofiction.  It is my conviction that every aesthetic form comes into being because it can do something unique, something that no other form can do.  Biofiction pictures the reality and value of the historical and the empirical, but it also portrays the anarchic, unpredictable, and semi-autonomous part of our humanity, which is something the historical novel fails to do.  Not only that, by charting both the rational and anarchic dimension of the human, biofiction gives us a more accurate visual of history, which is why I claim that the biographical novel has supplanted the historical novel.

You recently edited Biographical Fiction: A Reader through Bloomsbury (forthcoming, 2017). Could you tell me a little bit about this collection?

Michael Lackey, Biographical Fiction: A Reader (Bloomsbury, 2017)
Michael Lackey, Biographical Fiction: A Reader (Bloomsbury, 2016)

Biographical fiction has been around for more than a hundred years, but the scholarly studies about it have been scattered, uninformed, and inconsistent.  This has been a problem, which is why so many scholars have been requesting that someone put together an anthology.  To meet this scholarly need, I decided to collect the best and most important work about biofiction into a single volume so that scholars could use it for their research and educators could use it as a resource for their students.   I solicited suggestions for works to include in the anthology on academia.edu, and many scholars made excellent recommendations. The goal with this volume is not to provide a final or definitive work about biofiction.  It is actually to generate more studies about the aesthetic form.  And a brief glance at all the great biographical novels that have been published over the last thirty years suggests that this is the golden age of biofiction, which means that there is going to be a lot of work for scholars for many years to come.  It is really a great time to be doing work on biofiction.

 For those who are new to this kind of writing, can you recommend a place to start?

J.M. Coetzee, The Master of Petersburg
J.M. Coetzee, The Master of Petersburg

This is a difficult question to answer, because there are so many different types of biographical novels.  For instance, if you are interested in the unique challenges and thorny difficulties for women in the public arena, Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde (Marilyn Monroe), Lily Tuck’s The News from Paraguay (Eliza Lynch), and Kate Moses’ Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath are wonderfully insightful.  If you are drawn to existentialism, you will probably enjoy J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg, a brilliant novel about Dostoevsky; Irvin Yalom’s When Nietzsche Wept; Jay Parini’s Benjamin’s Crossing, a daring work about Walter Benjamin; Joanna Scott’s Arrogance, an insightful novel about Egon Schiele; or Charles Johnson’s Dreamer, a masterful biofiction about Martin Luther King Jr.  A compelling fiction that spotlights sibling tensions and rivalries is Susan Sellers’ Vanessa & Virginia, which portrays the loving but very conflicted relationship between Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.  There have been some stellar biblical biographical novels, such as George Moore’s The Brook Kerith and Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain, but Thomas Mann’s tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers is still the most stunning and brilliant.  For probing depictions of the impossible situation for nineteenth-century women, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (Grace Marks) and Jerome Charyn’s The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson are pure genius.  Lance Olsen’s Nietzsche’s Kisses and Bruce Duffy’s Disaster Was My God: A Novel of the Outlaw Life of Arthur Rimbaud are challenging and demanding, but extremely rewarding.  For devastating portrayals of gays living in heteronormative societies, I strongly recommend Duffy’s The World as I Found It, Edmund White’s Hotel de Dream (Stephen Crane), and Paul Russell’s The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabakov.  As you can see, this list can go on for a long time.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on two book projects.  In 2014, Bloomsbury published Truthful Fictions, which consists of my interviews with many American biographical novelists.  That book was well received, so my editor wants me to do another one, this time with biographical novelists across the globe.  But instead of doing all those interviews on my own, I have a team of biofiction scholars who are currently interviewing authors.  I think that book will be called Global Truthful Fictions.  But I am also working on a book tentatively titled Irish Biofiction.  As far as I can tell, Oscar Wilde was the first person to make a theoretical reflection about the nature of biofiction, which he did in 1889.  Not coincidentally, there have been two biographical novels about Wilde.  Also, there have been some spectacular biographical novels by Irish writers, such as Colm Tóibín’s The Master (Henry James) and The Testament of Mary (Mother of Jesus); Anne Enright’s The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch; Colum McCann’s Dancer (Rudi Nureyev) and TransAtlantic (Frederick Douglass, John Alcock, Arthur Brown, and George Mitchell); Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music (Jenny Bonnet); John Banville’s Doctor Copernicus and Kepler; and many others. Why have the Irish been authoring such compelling biofictions for so long?  What is unique and distinctive about Irish biofiction?  How have the Irish advanced the art form?  How does Irish biofiction fit within the literary tradition?  I think we can discover some important things in Irish biofiction, but what exactly—well, I’m not quite sure yet.  However, if you ask me in a year from now, I suspect I will have a much better idea.

The American Biographical Novel is available from Bloomsbury. Biographical Fiction: A Reader is also available from Bloomsbury.


About the Author

Michael Lackey is Distinguished McKnight University Professor of English at the University of Minnesota, USA. He is the author of The Modernist God State: A Literary Study of the Nazis’ Christian Reich (2012), and African American Atheists and Political Liberation: A Study of the Socio-Cultural Dynamics of Faith, which won the Choice Award for Outstanding Academic Title in 2008. He is also the editor of The Haverford Discussions: A Black Integrationist Manifesto for Racial Justice (2013).

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  1. Interesting that you’ve linked again recently to this post; I just read Damon Galgut’s novel about EM Forster, Arctic Summer. Got me thinking about biofiction, so this post is particularly timely – thanks.

    • Rhys Tranter

      Hi Simon! Fantastic. Glad to be of service 😉

  2. Pingback: Weekly Round-Up (31 Dec 2016) – RhysTranter.com

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