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The Lives of Saints (and Sinners)

While the passing of Frank McCourt shone a light on memoirs, more literary biographies have been doing land-office business of late.

In the past year or so, readers of literary biographies have had plenty on their plate. Thick books have been published on the lives of Ralph Ellison, Richard Yates, Flannery O'Connor, Donald Barthlme, John Cheever, V.S. Naipaul and Gabriel García Márquez.

And if you look across the publishing spectrum, the genre is, of course, not limited to stories about writers. Bookstores and best-seller lists are full of biographies of politicians, captains of industry and historical figures. With his books on Harry Truman and John Adams, David McCullough is his own cottage industry.

So what explains this abiding interest in biographies among writers, readers and publishers? This is one of those large, complicated questions whose answer might earn a scholar tenure, or place a young editor on the fast track. But let me offer a couple of initial thoughts.

First, biographies, in the form of hagiographies that recorded the lives of saints, precede the printing press and are present in most of the world's religious traditions. We are no longer as interested in the lives of religious saints, but we are interested in the secular variety of both saints and sinners. In reading biographies today, we're doing what we have been doing for a very long time. Some of us like reading about the exceptional and not so exceptional lives of others.

Second, in taking biographies and autobiographies together, the former is the calmer, more judicious sibling. The autobiography, in contrast, is raucous, less objective and free to flights of fancy and fabrication. Memoirs have been extremely popular in America in the past two decades, and as more cases of fabrication, which is intrinsic to the genre, come out, readers return to the safer choice of biographies. (Memoirs, however, continue to be very popular and are the subject of another conversation entirely.)

But perhaps there is a more simple reason. When written and researched well, biographies continue to be a robust genre, with its own internal differences, and one that tries to bring order to long, complicated lives. If we cannot gain such order for ourselves, at least we can see it in others.

Let's briefly consider a couple of recent examples.

The Nobel Laureates V.S. Naipaul and Gabriel García Márquez were born not too far from one another: Naipaul in Trinidad, García Márquez in Colombia. Both came from humble backgrounds, and both have had very successful literary careers.

In his review of Gerald Martin's Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, Michael Greenberg notes how García Márquez's self-fashioning is such a central part of how his biography is told. To understand García Márquez's life is to understand that he heavily participates in creating the record of how his life is to be remembered. As Greenberg writes, "The publicity-minded manner in which García Márquez has conducted his life has somehow ensured that he would remain essentially unknown."

In contrast, Naipaul laid everything out for his biographer Patrick French, not only his letters and diaries, but in personal conversation where he is insistent on brutal honesty. As a result, The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul reveals Naipaul in a way Martin cannot in the case of García Márquez.

Both García Márquez and Naipaul participate in how they want to be remembered, but the means of creating their stories is different. One doesn't say enough, the other says too much.

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