Audience Participation Friday: Best Bios

Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson

Flannery O'Connor wrote, "There won't be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy." It's true that the outward movements of Flannery O'Connor's life aren't as exciting as those of, say, Lawrence of Arabia or Davey Crockett or Catherine the Great. But such an inner life! As it turns out, her life has made surprisingly exciting copy for three major biographies and several minor ones. I'm in the process of adding to the minor ones. I'm not being self-deprecating when I say that. I expect this to be an excellent book, but it's a small book; the same size as the Saint Patrick bio, if you've seen that, and part of the same series--Thomas Nelson's "Christian Encounters" series. It's daunting to be writing in the shadow of Brad Gooch's excellent 2009 biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor and Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own, which is a quadruple biography paralleling the lives of Flannery O'Connor, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Walker Percy. At the moment, the Elie book isn't just my favorite biography of Flannery O'Connor; it's my favorite biography period.

The problem with biographies, however, is that people's lives rarely conform to Aristotle's rules for plot making. They get off to slow starts. They drag in the middle. They live another two or three decades beyond the climax of the story. The fiction writer has the luxury of making stuff up, but the honest and thorough biographer faces challenges if he or she wants to tell a compelling story. That's what some readers love about biographies. They can't wrap things up as neatly as fiction tends to do.

Let's talk about biographies today. What are your favorites? Why are they your favorites? What are your thoughts on the limitations of biography as a mode of storytelling?