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The Problems of Unauthorised Biographies

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A new unauthorised biography of Prince Charles has hit the bookshelves. It followed that by hitting the headlines, with numerous reviewers highlighting that it seems to be overly concerned with painting a negative portrait of its subject more than anything. Its author, Tom Bower, is described as the ‘master of the investigative hatchet job’ and the ‘undisputed Witchfinder General of contemporary biographers’. Is this just an issue with his work, however, or does it speak to a larger issue with biographies?

In his introduction to the book Bower claims that he is a “committed monarchist” and he wants Charles to become king, but you’d never guess this from reading the biography. He seems to frame every single piece of research negatively, presents all of Charles’ opinions as bad and even manages to cast his extensive charity work for the Prince’s Trust as a selfish attempt to improve his profile. In the book’s index, under ‘CHARLES: Character’, there is not a single positive trait listed.

In the book’s index, under ‘CHARLES: Character’, there is not a single positive trait listed

It is entirely possible that Charles is truly as bad as Bower suggests (although a back catalogue of similar books and complaints suggests that Bower has form in negative portraits). However, the fact that this book is unauthorised, based largely on interviews with 120 people involved with the family who did not want to be on the record, means there’s no way that the reader can be sure of any of it. To the casual observer, it looks like Tom Bower has a very clear agenda (this is not to say that it definitely is).

What, we have to ask, is the responsibility of a biographer? Should they attempt to present the story of a figure as impartially as they can, or should it be more like a grand narrative, spiced up by the author’s opinions and feelings? Does it depend on who the person is, and how the public perceives them? Is it even possible to present an impartial account, with everything being shaped by the biographer’s preferences – every person they speak to and the questions they ask, every piece of information they offer and how they offer it?

Presenting a negative account of a celebrity’s life, whether true or not, is a brilliant way of stoking interest in a book

A solution may be to only present official or authorised biographies, but you fall into a different trap: nobody wants the story of their life to be a bad one. They’re more inclined to suppress negative information. An unauthorised biography gives the biographer a greater scope to research and present information that is less favourable to the subject. Take, for example, Kitty Kelley’s biography of Frank Sinatra, which revealed his serial philandering and connections to organised crime – his friends, estate and the entertainment industry all rallied against the book.

There is also a risk, however, that the author is simply settling an agenda, and the text is presenting wild conjecture and calling it biography. Albert Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon is a great example, casting the Beatle as possessing a wild temper and being connected to the death of bandmate Stuart Sutcliffe. Presenting a negative account of a celebrity’s life, whether true or not, is a brilliant way of stoking interest in a book. It puts the subject in a terrible situation – if something is untrue, they can deny it, but then that only draws more attention to the book itself. Do you live with the supposed slander, or speak out against it and risk making it worse?

It’s not really possible for a biography to present an objective version of someone’s life; it’ll always be coloured in some way 

It’s not really possible for a biography to present an objective version of someone’s life; it’ll always be coloured in some way. But a good biographer will be able to offer that story in sufficient depth without letting their own opinions massively colour it. Perhaps Prince Charles is indeed a capricious, horrible character, but the lack of real context and the seeming dislike of its subject means this unauthorised biography is unlikely to go down as a good one.

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