Monday, June 23, 2008

Biography: A User's Guide by Carl Rollyson

I usually wait until I finish a book to review it, but I already know I want to recommend Biography: A User's Guide by Carl Rollyson. I wish that I had had it to consult a year ago when I started my biography book project. Being a biographer himself, the author has thought a lot about the genre, and he is not shy about telling what he thinks. He has a wicked wit and probably a list of enemies.

Rollyson addresses a lot of issues that interest me. As I started writing, I considered a readers' advisory chapter on "definitive biographies." I had seen the term frequently, but I could not pin it down, nor could I fairly identify a list of books that fit the bill. In his book with topics arranged alphabetically, Rollyson explains why I had such trouble. He reviles the term, which he says is just a marketing ploy, almost always self-proclaimed. His view is that every biography has a point of view and none puts the debate of a character to rest.

As the title suggests, the book is a sort of reference guide, but it is also a bit of a memoir. Rollyson provides some background on his own experiences. I enjoyed the entries "Fair Use" about his and colleagues' legal struggles to use quotations from unpublished sources and "Authorized Biographies" which discusses the upsetting of family members when writing authorized or unauthorized biographies.

Not many libraries seem to have added this book yet. They should consider it, for both readers and writers will find it interesting.

Rollyson, Carl. Biography: A User's Guide. Ivan R. Dee, 2008. ISBN 9781566637800.

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