Stanley Fish, "Just Published: Minutiae Without Meaning"
[a critique of biography and biographical narrative]

September 7, 1999
New York Times op ed page

CHICAGO -- Although biographies are a staple in bookstores and a favorite of reviewers, I confess that I rarely pick one up and almost never finish it when I do. Beginning a biography always makes me queasy, and queasiness turns into something close to a feeling of illness by the time I reach the third sentence.

The first sentence is usually O.K. It goes something like this: "On the fifth of May, 1879, in a small town in Ohio, John Smith was born to Aaron and Sarah Smith in the main house of their family farm." Nothing much to quarrel with there, but nothing much to hold a reader's interest either. Interest is supposed to be supplied by the second sentence, which might be, "It was a year of drought, and the collapse of farm prices seemed imminent." Or, "Memories of the Civil War were still strong, and quarrels between partisans often erupted in the inns and ale-houses of southern Ohio."

It is with this second sentence, no matter what it is, that a gap opens up and a question is implied. What connects the first and second sentences? What is the relationship between the birth of John Smith and the imminent collapse of farm prices or post-Civil War tensions or anything else?

Presumably the gap will be filled or at least begin to be filled by the third sentence, but in fact the third sentence only widens the gap. When it arrives you realize that it could have been almost anything. "Little did little John know . . . " Or, "Only years later would it become clear . . . " Or, "Meanwhile, in another part of the country . . . "

And if the third sentence could be almost anything, so could the fourth and the fifth, and on and on, with nothing stopping the spiral sprawl of unconvincing speculation except the occasional sentence that, in its solidity and flatness, reminds you of the first: "John Smith married Betsy Jones in the fall of 1901." Or, "On Dec. 10, 1944, he was hit by lightning and died immediately."

It's the stuff in between that's the problem. You know what it's supposed to do -- it's supposed to supply the explanatory structure that links and gives depth to the bare recital of dated events -- but all it really does is call attention to the stretch and strain of conceptual bridges that are not connecting, bridges made up of psychology, economics, military analysis, astrology, whatever.

The falseness of it all is overwhelming, and you begin to be embarrassed at the spectacle of a biographer who knows so much and is trying so hard, but who can deliver only transitions that creak and analyses that you don't believe for a minute.

It wasn't always that way. Once upon a time, biographers didn't have to invent connections because they came ready made in the form of master narrative models. The two most durable were the providential model (everyone lives out the pattern of mistakes bequeathed to us by the original sin of Adam and Eve) and the wheel of fortune model (every life worth chronicling is an example of the general rule that what goes up must come down).

The great advantage of these models was that they supplied in advance the meanings modern-day biographers desperately seek in letters, medical records, the names of boyhood sleds, anything. In an age like ours, when master narratives have little or no credibility, meaning is supposed to just well up spontaneously from the details biographers obsessively collect. But details unattached to a master story don't mean anything in particular, or can mean anything at all. Which is why the biographer is compelled to invent or fabricate a meaning by riding his or her favorite hobbyhorse until every inch of the subject's life is covered by some reassuring pattern of cause and effect.

Cause and effect took care of themselves when you knew before you began that the life you were narrating would end up illustrating a general truth familiar to everyone. But when general truths have been foresworn, the biographer is left with little more than a collection of random incidents, and the only truth being told is the truth of contingency, of events succeeding one another in a universe of accident and chance.

The honest thing for a biographer to do in this situation would be to give up cause and effect and just go with contingency. But cause and effect are the biographer's very stock in trade, and contingency is what no self-respecting biographer can allow to stand; it must be pushed away and replaced with an explanatory structure, any explanatory structure.

The only exceptions to this general rule (and the only kind of biography I can endure) are the biographies of film stars and other celebrities, a subgenre that does quite nicely even when explanations are either absent or weak.

The reason is that contingency and accident are pretty much the content of celebrity lives. First, there is the accident of "the discovery" (in a drugstore or a chorus line, on the beach or on the street), followed, after false starts and failures, by the accident of the "big break," followed by the even bigger accident of the "role of a lifetime" (turned down by Lana Turner or Clark Gable), followed -- not inevitably, but often -- by the accident of the "decline and fall" (Fatty Arbuckle, Elvis Presley, Ernest Hemingway), followed by the most glorious accident of all, the "comeback" (Frank Sinatra, John Travolta, Judy Garland, Marv Albert).

There are a few variations on the basic formula -- the accident of a life cut off in its prime (James Dean, John Lennon, Princess Di and almost any country-and-western singer who ever boarded a plane), the accident, often in dispute and mysterious, of suicide (Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain), the accident of heroically overcoming an accident (Christopher Reeve, Ann-Margret, Montgomery Clift, George Jones).

But these are just variations on contingency, and since by definition the contingent is what defies explanation, readers and viewers will not be disappointed if the explanatory structure is missing. Indeed, whenever A&E's "Biography" interrupts its rehearsal of improbable successes and failures to indulge in a fit of explanation, the effort is so obviously halfhearted and pathetic -- "Meanwhile, their marriage was unraveling" or "Meanwhile, the public turned away from that form of entertainment" -- that you are not even tempted to take it seriously.

My criticism of biography does not hold for autobiography. It makes none of the claims made for biography and is therefore not subject to any of the criticisms. You cannot fault the author of an autobiography for failing to be objective, or for substituting his story for the story of his subject.

He is his subject, and his performance, complete with the quirks and blindnesses of his personality, is not a distraction or deviation from the story of his life but an extension of it. Autobiographers cannot lie because anything they say, however mendacious, is the truth about themselves, whether they know it or not. Autobiographers are authentic necessarily and without effort.

Biographers, on the other hand, can only be inauthentic, can only get it wrong, can only lie, can only substitute their own story for the story of their announced subject. (Biographers are all autobiographers, although the pretensions of their enterprise won't allow them to admit it or even see it.)

Biography, in short, is a bad game, and the wonder is that so many are playing it and that so many others are watching it and spending time that might be better spent on more edifying spectacles like politics and professional wrestling.

Stanley Fish is the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois, Chicago. His most recent book is "The Trouble With Principle."