10/19/2010 06:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Biography: The Falsest Art?

"Biography is the falsest of arts," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in one of his many notebooks. Fitzgerald blamed the biographer of course, the summation required by the biographical enterprise, and not the subject for this falseness. He blamed the biographer's compunction to make men into movements, into types, archetypes, and so on.

Fitzgerald was partially right about this, I think. Yet every biographer knows, literary biographers in particular, our subjects are often unreliable witnesses, especially to what happens to them. They are unreliable largely because they believe so confidently that they are not. Our genre remains vibrant, to read and write, for this reason and also because: all art is adornment; we prefer adornment to bald fact; on all self-truths we practice self-surgery.

As a literary journalist who has interviewed and written about many contemporary writers, I can tell you that writers practice the strange art of willful obtusion. I can tell you they almost always prefer a beautiful lie to a banal truth. Who doesn't, I guess. A writer's archive is then just a rich depository of splayed and embellished truths; a writer's archive is layered with lies in the same way a desert cliff is raked with variant sediment. The best that a literary biographer can do then (whether working with a living subject or a dead one) is corroborate statements, challenge stories, check sentiments, and cross-check dates. The best we can do is search through the facts and fictions and then forge them into an understanding that can be shared. A literary biography, then, is a writer's understanding of a writer, shared.

My recent work inside the archives at The Huntington Library and at The John Hay Library at Brown University bears all these truths out. What's remembered of my subject there by Lillian Hellman is half-remembered in a half-light. What's remembered by Dorothy Parker, the same. What is remembered by William Faulkner is essentially that he and my subject went hunting on two occasions. William Carlos Williams recalls a brief editorial correspondence on a literary magazine he does not name. My subject's sister brags that her brother was an excellent student. He was not.

Beyond all the trouble of sorting fact from fiction is the far greater one of composition -- shaping a mass of dates and declarations into a story of a life that resembles some truth I want to tell. I've been driven to decide whether my subject was a major novelist or a minor one. Was his horrific car accident on a clear day in the middle of the California desert an accident after all? And finally, and most essentially, how does the boy of nine sequestered in his bedroom reading the great English and Russian novelists of the Nineteenth Century, fashion himself into one of the most engaging and peculiar modernists of the Twentieth Century?

Really, it's this last question to which I've devoted myself and my biography. How does the amateur enthusiast become the professional, the craftsman become the artist? As I work to finish my first complete draft, I've posted above my desk one of my favorite sentences from the work-in-progress:

"A writer is what a writer does, not what he means to do."

Isn't that right and true? I think so. This gives the literary biographer some hope that what remains can be studied and tested, measured and admired.

In the end, I've come to believe that what makes the biography of a writer (or any person for that matter) crackle and pop (and also reliable and true) is knowing as many lies as truths -- the lies they told to others, the lies others told of them, and most importantly, the lies they told themselves. In our lies live our truths.