icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Biography: A User's Guide

No aspect of the genre, from A to Z, goes uncovered: issues around authorized and unauthorized biography, censorship, libel, fair use, public domain (referred to as "PD" by publishers and editors), and a great deal more-including examples drawn from published biographies, as well as general and specific assessments of the biographer's art. Mr. Rollyson demonstrates that biography has more dimensions than are generally gleaned from book reviews and academic discourse. In a lively and provocative style, he argues with other biographers and critics, avoiding the polite and vague tones of many reference books on the subject.

"For anyone mad enough to write a biography, this witty, definitive book [Biography: A User's Guide] is absolutely essential reading. For anyone who merely loves reading biography, it’s a smashing insider’s guide. Mr. Rollyson is informed and passionate and fun about a subject he knows intimately. He’s also unafraid to let his personal opinions show, thank goodness. In short, he’s written a wonderfully entertaining biography about the art of biography."

--John Heilpern, New York Observer

Wide ranging and provocative, Carl Rollyson's guide takes an intrepid journey through the many ramifications of biography--its history, its subjects, its practitioners, and its pitfalls. The section on 'fair use' alone makes his book essential reading for everyone involved in the art of writing lives. Add to those Rollyson's trenchant reviews of biographies new and old, and the guide becomes a master class in the virtues and vices of its subject. --Mary S. Millar , author of Disraeli's Disciple: The Scandalous Life of George Smythe

For biographers, Rollyson has written an absolutely essential guide to compelling biographical issues. But Biography: A User's Guide is also a treat for readers of literature--and anyone who loves good gossip. It's studded with gems of provocative insight and behind-the-scenes stories. Rollyson, a seasoned biographer, makes no secret of his biases or his reputation as a biographical outlaw: the story of his adventures in writing his biography of Susan Sontag is more than worth the price of admission. A fascinating book.-- Mary Dearborn, author of Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim and Mailer: A Biography

Carl Rollyson's Biography: A User's Guide offers something witty and wonderful for everybody. Readers of biographies will be amazed to get a backstage guided tour of how these books are really produced. Writers of biographies should keep a copy under their pillows.--Marion Meade, author of Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? and Lonely Hearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney

My review of a worthy competitor:


The ABC of Modern Biography

Nigel Hamilton and Hans Renders

Amsterdam University Press, 2018


"No dictionary of biography today, unfortunately, provides an easily accessible map of modern biography," the authors claim. Well, I can think of two: my own Biography: A User's Guide (2008), reviewed in these pages by Nigel Hamilton, and Encyclopedia of Life Writing (2001), edited by Margaretta Jolly. The ABC of Modern Biography does not supersede these earlier books, but that is not to say you should not attend to Hamilton and Renders first. As practicing biographers and scholars of the genre, they have expanded an understanding of the range and significance of biography and approached the alphabet of the genre in an original, instructive, and entertaining way. 


You won't find, for example, "C is for Composition" in any other book. The third sentence of this entry explans why biography has suffered from neglect in the literary canon as a kind of second-rate sibling of the novel: "The construction of the biography itself, as a work of craft—its shape, its framing, its narrative arc, the quality of its ingredients from archival discoveries to interviews, its style as prose or composition by the biographer—these are of scant interest to the reviewer or journalist"—and, usually, to scholars as well, except for those benighted few who try to make a go of writing about biography, which has no place in the college curriculum. That one Hamilton/Renders sentence lays out what reviewers and critics should be doing with the time they would rather spend writing about fiction. Because even great writers like Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh have not put in the time on how to write biography, their own biographical productions, Hamilton and Renders point out, are disasters. So ignorant are the literati that they have it coming in another H/R sentence: "Composing a biography, in other words, is much harder than it might first appear." In the C entry, they go on to discuss the issues of framing, composition, narrative voice, and so on, that any neophyte or experiences biographer will find enlightening.


I can't imagine any other book on biography having an entry as brilliant as "X is for Xanadu": "From the opening sequence—the camera panning over the Xanadu estate, with its 'No Trespassing' sign and large 'K' welded on the gate—Citizen Kane is a kind of homage to the art and process of biography, biographers today recognize, as editors in a smoky projection room watch a newsreel summary of Kane's life and are told by their boss, Mr. Rawlston, they need to dig deeper than the myth, not only to decipher the potential meaning of Kane's last word, but to fill lin his 'character." Rawlston then asks a series of questions about Kane's motivations and what he was after.  That panning camera, I would add, mimics the phases of inquiry the reporters and views of the film have to experience in order to penetrate the elusive Kane. The film never promises full disclosure; it is too honest to do that, for that would make biography stoop to that too eager to please genre: the novel. Only the greatest novels can match great biography, and those novels—by Nabokov and Faulkner, for example—are wise enough to leave something out, the kind of mystery that readers of biography relish.


What sets The ABC of Modern Biography apart from its predecessors is its force as both inspiration and instruction.  Any first biographer is required to read this book. Any experienced biographer can still profit from a refresher course that entries like "E is for Ethics," "J is for Journalism," and "T is for Theory" supply.  Each entry is followed by a list of sources so that, for example, you can read more about authorized biography in articles and books by Kitty Kelley and Carl Rollyson. The comprehensive bibliography and excellent index make the book even more useful. This encyclopedic and elegant work, which can be read in digestible parts or swallowed whole without the slightest intellectual indigestion, is a delight and a godsend.