Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Who Will Be the Next Generation of Biographers?

As I have continued to work on my book about biography readers' advisory, I have become increasingly aware that the community of professional biographers is quickly aging. Many of them are in their sixties, seventies, and even older. I can identify only a few authors with three or more books that can be considered biographical who are under fifty years old.

I surmised that biography was a profession for later in life, which it is for some authors. Perhaps reflecting on someone else's life is comforting as one foresees the end of one's own life only a few decades away. The evidence does not, however, bear this out.

Peter Ackroyd was 32 when he wrote his first biography.

Stephen Ambrose was 26.

A. Scott Berg was 29.

David Herbert Donald was 28.

Joseph J. Ellis was 30.

Antonia Fraser was 37.

Doris Kearnes Goodwin was 33.

J. Randy Taraborrelli was 29.

I could go on. Most had three biographies by the time they reached fifty.

I only see Douglas Brinkley, Ross King, and Ben Macintyre in the under fifty crowd with three or more books that could be considered as biographies.

So, who will write biographies in the future? There may be some openings. Know how to write?


Ross said...

H.W. Brands is a prolific biographer who's probably right around the age of 50... At any rate, I saw him speak this last weekend and he was quite engaging. I imagine he has quite a few biographies left in him.

ricklibrarian said...

Brands is 55 according to Contemporary Authors. According to my calculations, he did have four biographies by age 50, after starting at age 45. He had written numerous historical works before that. He is the type of writer who will have to fill the void. Of course, he is already filling the void and probably has many years left. Thanks for commenting.

Anonymous said...

There are a few biographers who started late, mostly b/c they had too many other things to do earlier. For instance, Hannah Pakula, who wrote wonderful bios of Queen Marie of Romania and the Empress Frederick of Prussia (I have acquired tastes). You need bucks and time to go over to Europe and search through archives. Unfortunately, this means you can't write too many such bios in total . . .

I'm "anonymous" but this is Sarah - I met you at PLA with Citizen Reader and we did lunch at the IDS center.

Oh and congrats on the book!!!

ricklibrarian said...


You're right. Setting oneself up as a biographer must be risky business. Until you have a track record, there will probably be few advances from publishers. I suspect more mature writers are probably more interested anyway and probably have more perspective to offer. It may be an older writers genre.