Monday, August 18, 2008

How to Do Biography: A Primer by Nigel Hamilton

Nigel Hamilton has put out another book about the writing of biography. Last year he published Biography: A Brief History. This year he has issued a practical guide for the writing and selling of biography to publishers called How to Do Biography: A Primer. Some topics that first time writers might not expect in this book include how to get permissions to quote from documents and how to prepare to defend a book from challenges by offended parties.

Believing that biographers do need to have a sense of the history of the genre, Hamilton covers a little of the same ground that he covered in his previous book. "Real life depiction has always been controversial," says the author. A good biography focuses not on facts and incidents but on character reputations. If the subject or family and friends are living, an honest biography is certain to offend. Shakespeare knew this and stuck to historical plays when depicting monarchs, trying not to land in jail or to lose his head.

Hamilton offers good advice about writer focus:

Asking yourself who, ultimately, will be interested in, or willing to read, the life you're recounting should be your constant concern. When biographies fail to spark interest, become tedious or unsatisfying, it is usually because the biographer had lost his commitment to engage the reader and is taking the audience for granted, by getting too self-absorbed in the life he is depicting. Never forget or neglect the reader!

We should all remember that. Hamilton's book, which includes a chapter on the responsibilities of the memoir writer, should be popular in many public and college libraries.

Hamilton, Nigel. How to Do Biography: A Primer. Harvard University Press, 2008. ISBN 9780674027961.

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