The Problem with Writing Biographies of Imaginative Figures
Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan on Beyond the Page: The Best of the Sun Valley Writers‘ Conference
Welcome to Beyond the Page: The Best of the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference. Over the past 25 years, SVWC has become the gold standard of American literary festivals, bringing together contemporary writing’s brightest stars for their view of the world through a literary lens. Every month, Beyond the Page curates and distills the best talks from the past quarter century at the Writers’ Conference, giving you a front row seat on the kind of knowledge, inspiration, laughter, and meaning that Sun Valley is known for.
In this episode of Beyond the Page, host John Burnham Schwartz talks with Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan about their landmark biography Francis Bacon: Revelations.
From the interview:
Mark Stevens: Well, my problem with many biographies of imaginative figures, as opposed to, say, politicians or soldiers or people who have very active, narrated life, my problem is that the work, which is, after all, the most important thing about the person and the reason finally that you’re writing the biography, the work when you describe an imaginative work of art in a biography, very often it becomes this indigestible pudding … these little cups of really boring pudding that harm the narrative in a disagreeable way, because works of art often don’t have a narration that fits clearly with the narration of the life. So you never want to reduce the art of the life with the life to the art. So what we do is we do describe works of art in the text, moving along usually not at great length, but then we break out significant works that are significant for a variety of reasons into their own discrete sections. That allows the reader a rest in a way to directly engage with the work of art and think about it, apart from the life. It puts some space between the work and the life, which is also a sign of a certain modesty in a biographer and you’re not explaining everything.
To listen to more of Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan and other talks from the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, subscribe now wherever you find your podcasts!
Mark Stevens is the former art critic of New York magazine. He has been the art critic for The New Republic and Newsweek and has also written for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times.
Annalyn Swan is the former arts editor of Newsweek and an award-winning music critic. She teaches biography at the Graduate Center of CUNY as well as at the Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English. Stevens and Swan won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for their biography, de Kooning: An American Master. They live in New York.