Are All Biographies Flawed?

Following a conversation which I had with one of my thesis supervisors in November last year, I have been pondering about biographies.  I was advised not to include any of them in my research, as the supervisor in question is ‘not interested in what an author was like, but what they wrote’.  Fair enough, I suppose.


From the Washington Independent Review of Books

However, my own personal stance on biographies is rather different to this.  I like to be acquainted with the work of a particular author or other historical figure before I read a biographical work about them, but I find that reading such tomes is central to my understanding of the world which they inhabited, and the influences which they had.

Whilst I’m not going to choose to eschew biographies in my reading life, it has led me to the following question – are all biographies flawed?  Is there really such thing as an impartial biography, or will there always be some sway by the author onto their chosen subject?  All thoughts on this, or on biographical writing in itself, are very welcome; I’d love to hear where you all stand.

5 thoughts on “Are All Biographies Flawed?

  1. I’m with you on biographies! It helps ground me in the era. I had a professor say the same: the biography I’d chosen on a reading of an author’s work was unnecessary. Once I wrote the paper, though (using the biography as source material), she changed her mind. She said that I’d chosen passages that added insight on her work and perspective.

    I would say that biographies must be flawed because they’re based on only a portion of the person described: letters, journals, interviews perhaps. The outside evidence that they existed. This isn’t the whole picture any more than primary documents from history can offer the whole truth and psychology of history. It offers us our best educated assessment in an incomplete way.

  2. I can’t help but be fascinated by an author and the era they live in, so I do like to read biographies, although I also take some of them with a pinch of salt (as one must do even with diaries and letters). Occasionally, I almost regret finding out more about an author, as it nearly puts me off their work! But I do agree that it’s important to judge work on its own merit. I know lovely people whose writing is mediocre, and a few not-so-nice people whose poetry is dazzling. For example.

  3. I’m sure they are ‘flawed’ on the basis they are one person’s point of view about another. Perhaps sometimes they say just as much about the person writing them as about the subject. But they may stimulate a new line of research or question about the subject of the biography so can be useful even if it just gives you a chance to counter an argument they’ve making.. However, I’m pretty sure I’ve read plenty of autobiographies that were flawed as well!

  4. I don’t read many biographies but I do strongly believe that you cannot perceive a writer (or any creator really) only through their work to understand them completely. Everything they create is in a way sum of their personal experiences. That’s why I don’t think we should separate (and by doing so undermine) results of creative process from the context

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