Biographies & Writing

The kind of biography I've never understood is the biography which quotes, in huge swaths, from the subject's autobiography. This isn't because I belong to the school of thought that considers the subject's version of events hopelessly biased; of course it is biased but not hopelessly. If the subject claims to have had an experience which impacted him/her in a particular way, I'm all for giving that claim the benefit of the doubt.

What I boggle at is not the substance but the style. I can, after all, read the subject's autobiography myself. Often, I have. If I've picked up a biography, it's to get another look at the facts or a different take on the subject or more information. If all I get instead is quotes, I'll go back to the autobiography.

Yet ironically (or hyprocritically, depending on your point of view), I suffer from this same stylistic problem in my college papers. The problem seems to stem from humanities training versus analytical training. In the humanities, especially English, you prove your thesis. That is, you state a proposition and then back it up with quote after quote after quote. But analysis, which is what my history professors seem to prefer, states that you postulate a thesis and then examine a subject in terms of that thesis.

Now, the irony (not the hyprocrisy, in this case) is that I prefer to read analysis when it comes to biographies but not so much so when I read histories. I like a wry tone and analytical ideas thrown in here and there, but overall I prefer a much more straightforward approach. Tell me what happened. Then, tell me what you think.

This preference on my part has resulted in a surprising degree of difficulty over the writing portion of my master's program. I don't mean that to sound arrogant. It is surprising not because I am a great writer but because I'm not usually a bad one. But the issue seems to come down to my reluctance to postulate about things that I can't prove. What's the good of examining evidence if I haven't even presented it yet? The history portion of my classes focuses almost exclusively on narratives (rather than facts)and since narratives are hardly evidence (except of the writer's state of mind), it is hardly meritorious to postulate much more than a particular state of mind, as in my state of mind while I'm writing the thing. Which brings us back to the original text and a humanities type of exegesis.

What, I ask myself, class after class, paper after paper, do my professors want? The conclusion I've reached is that they don't want to be bored and they want me to look like I'm being profound. To postulate that the American West is filled with folktales which play various roles in various cultures is all very well but to postulate that the production of folktales is intrinsic to the Western landscape and entails a reaction to the ideologies of national identity, producing friction between the regional cultures of the West, the landscape and the national outlook--such an idea carries much more gravitas. I don't necessarily believe it since I don't believe anything in life is that seamless and explainable. But it sounds good and it's all about analysis, rather than evidence.

The point being, academics has become blogging, with longer words and footnotes--so I should be able to do it, as long as I don't keep thinking academics is actually about something else. My opinion is the point. It hardly seems to matter whether I'm right or wrong.

CATEGORY: HISTORY & LEARNING

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