Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography is due out in September 2016. Fans of The Boss can’t wait for the release of Born to Run on September 27th. It’s fully expected to be an international bestseller, and the rights have already been sold all over the planet. Simon and Schuster should score a massive hit. But what makes a great autobiography?
Springsteen has been working on his highly personal memoir for seven years, kicking the book off after the famous sell-out Super Bowl halftime with the E Street Band in 2009.
As he says in WritersWrite,
“Writing about yourself is a funny business. But in a project like this, the writer has made one promise, to show the reader his mind. In these pages, I’ve tried to do this.”
You can expect an exploration of The Boss’s early years and his steely determination to make it. Plus insights into the creative sprit that drives the man, who is, as he says, fueled by, “poetry, danger, and darkness.” By all accounts the book lives up to its promise, rich in detail and delving deep into the man’s motivation, struggles, dark times, and successes. Perhaps that’s what makes a great autobiography: the personal touch, the authenticity you don’t get from a story told second-hand.
So then, if that’s the case, what makes a great biography? Probably the same elements as an autobiography: the reader’s ability to recognize the subject’s strengths, weaknesses, and essential humanity, even though it’s written by a third party.
The biographers I rate highest
I’ll read everything the multi-award winning Doris Kearns Goodwin writes. Douglas Brinkley too. Why is that?
Kearns is a biographer, historian, and political commentator. She’s written bios of several US presidents, including Lyndon Johnson, and the Fitzgeralds (of the Kennedy clan). She’s brought Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt to sparkling life, portrayed Abraham Lincoln in her blockbuster Team of Rivals and, most recently, explored Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. It’s intelligent, perceptive, finely-detailed work, and as a reader you get a real sense of discovery, thanks to her research. These are not exercises in flattery. They’re merciless. You get a real sense of the personalities she dissects, warts and all. And, of course, she writes like a dream.
Douglas Brinkley, according to Stephen Ambrose, his university mentor, is, “the best of the new generation of American historians.” His 2012 bio of Walter Cronkite won the 2013 Ann M. Sperber Biography Award for 2013. His 1992 bio of James Forrestal won the Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt Naval History Prize. And his biographies of Dean Acheson, FDR, Jimmy Carter, Henry Ford, John Kerry, and more have been received with considerable critical acclaim.
What makes a bad bio/autobiography?
Is it research? A lazy biographer might skip the deep stuff, or avoid things that might embarrass the subject, or be too over-awed by their fame to reveal the real personality beneath the glitz. They might be tempted to gloss over the less positive aspects of a life, creating a story that’s long on flattery and short on fact. An autographical book might cover up incidents they’re ashamed of, bored by, or would rather forget. Or the subject might simply be a terrible writer. Just because they’re famous doesn’t mean they can string a worthwhile sentence together, construct a believable timeline, or weave a convincing plot.
The Friendly Ghostwriter
Which brings us to the ghostwriter. Search Google and there are loads of websites where you can find a ghostwriter for your book, bio or not. In a way it resembles vanity publishing. All you need is an idea. Someone else brings it to fruition, and you take all the credit.
Some see it as cheating. Others wouldn’t publish without one. In the final analysis, however, if it’s a great story, does it really matter? Self-styled digital marketing guru Guy Kawasaki admits using ghostwriters for his Twitter account, and the world keeps turning. Early drafts of mega-sellers like Profiles in Courage by JFK were written by Ted Sorenson, and even Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl was heavily “edited” by her father.
If you use a ghostwriter, it might improve the chances of your book getting published. It frees you to concentrate on promoting the book. And the ghostwriter might be skilled enough so nobody notices. The best ghosts are, by nature, good listeners, able to separate the wheat from the chaff. And, as many of us know, writing is rarely fun. It’s incredibly hard work, especially if you have brilliant ideas but don’t have the right temperament to write yourself.
Still, using a ghostwriter doesn’t guarantee success. Goodreads provides a list of the worst celebrity tomes, including The Real Patsy Cline by Doug Hall, a bio of Sylivia Plath by Linda Wagner-Smith, Marilyn Monroe by Barbara Learning and Ivan the Terrible by Isabela de Madariaga.
Next week, I’ll talk about “co-authoring,” which, the latest trend in fiction writing.