Life Writing: The Art of Biography
Prof. Annalyn Swan
Tues 2-4, Spring 2014
“Life Writing: The Art of Biography” will be a sustained analysis of what makes biography, at its best, a genre that combines the strengths of both non-fiction and fiction—the precision of historical and biographical scholarship with the insight and narrative thrust of a good novel. The course will explore the biographer’s (and autobiographer’s) craft through a range of subjects and styles. It will also provide students the opportunity to write a biographical introduction to, or chapter about, a person who fascinates them.
As literary genres go, biography has always been something of a stepchild—and understandably so. Far too many people approach writing biography as a nuts-and-bolts recitation of a person’s life. But the best biography is as different from this pedestrian approach as Jane Austen is to pulp fiction. Great biography tells the tale with panache, while never straying from scrupulous historical and biographical research. It contains, in short, the best of fact and fiction.
The genre can take a number of different forms, from group portraits, to autobiography and memoirs, to the classic tale of one central figure. The course will begin with excerpts from Telling Lives, a collection of essays about the biographer’s art that will serve as a foundation for the semester-long discussion to come. The seminar will then trace the crafting of the form through fourteen weeks of close intellectual and stylistic analysis of different biographies and autobiographies. Throughout the semester there will be oral presentations of c. 20 minutes on that week’s reading. In week seven, students will submit a five- to seven-page book review that is a more sustained analysis of any one of the works on the reading list. For the main assignment, due the final week, students will choose a figure (or group of figures) to write about. They will research their subjects over the course of the semester and, at the end of the course, submit a 12- to 15-page “Introduction” to, or chapter from, the biography that they would write, in which many of the themes discussed in the course will be encapsulated.