Getting It Right: Accuracy, Truth, and the Fudge Factor

The great thing about fiction writing is: you get to make shit up. The worst thing about fiction writing is: you have to make shit up. Biographers are spared this pleasure/pain double-double-toil-and-trouble. We have to tell the truth, or something like it. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

I don’t mean to suggest that writers are born liars, though come to think of it we probably are. The point is, biographers have an obligation to be accurate, honest, and truthful. The same might be said of fiction writers; a novel can be as phony and dishonest as a bad biography. But biographers deal with real people who did and said specific things and lived particular, distinctive lives – lives that other people want to read about - and we are morally bound to report these facts without doctoring them, pointedly leaving things out in order to cast the subject in a light of our own making, or, worst of all, allowing ourselves and our opinions to become the usurping subject of the biography, jettisoning the poor ostensible subject out of the book the way a rocket discards detritus after lift-off.

Problem 1: Accuracy

A good biography must be accurate, meaning the writer must gather and deliver a vast number of verified facts - quotations, dates, identities, summations of the subject’s work, and so on. Our research has to be both correct and extensive. You can’t write a biography of Clark Gable and have him make It Happened One Night, Gone with the Wind, and The Misfits and leave out the ones you’re not interested in or those that are troublesome to find. You can’t have him marry Carole Lombard and leave out the two other wives. Gable made 67 feature films and married three women, and his biographer must research them all. No, you can’t just skip over Cain and Mabel because you can’t find it on Netflix, or because you don’t think it’s worth writing about because most people never heard of it. For better or worse, Clark Gable made a movie called Cain and Mabel; he drove to the studio every morning and put labor into its production; he gave a unique performance using specific ways of speaking and moving; and it’s his biographer’s duty to report these details. They are the building blocks of the biographer’s art. You don’t have to spend much page time on the Cain and Mabels of your own subject’s life and career, but they’ve got to be there in some form or other. Without them, your book is inaccurate, and the more inaccurate it is, the worse it becomes. At some point you will have made it so inaccurate as to be worthless.

The great thing about fiction writing is: you get to make shit up. The worst thing about fiction writing is: you have to make shit up.

The relative difficulty of finding a print of Cain and Mabel is immaterial. You have to find one and see it. It’s that simple. And you have to find and see the other 66, too.

You can’t start to write before you do an enormous amount of research. Why not? Because you don’t know anything yet.

Moreover, you have to do research before you even start doing research. Huh? Well, just as you have to find out where the gold mines are before you start mining the gold, you have to find out where the archives and libraries are before you can use them. We all leave paper trails of our lives, but people worth writing biographies about tend to have left a lot more paper, more interesting paper, or both. They may have donated these records to a university or large public library. Consider yourself lucky if they've done so, because all you need to do is get there and spend time sifting through the letters, contracts, reviews, stills, and such that not only make up the collection but that let you assemble the real-life story you’re telling, bit by bit.

If they never donated their papers to a library, they’ve still left some material somewhere. And you have to find it. When I began researching the researching of On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, I was surprised to learn that Wilder hadn’t donated his papers anywhere. (I didn’t yet know that a lot of his stuff burnt to a crisp in a terrible 1974 fire on the Goldwyn lot, where he had his office.) That he didn’t have an archive somewhere was disappointing but scarcely devastating, because I also found out that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library had an extensive collection of Paramount Pictures records, and since Wilder made many of his films at Paramount, there was an abundance of material to sift through. (A personal note: if we get our own individualized heavens in the afterlife, mine will closely resemble the Academy library, only with the addition of a well-stocked bar.)

Kirk Douglas’s papers were at the University of Wisconsin; Douglas starred in Wilder’s superbly demoralizing 1951 drama Ace in the Hole; so I went to Madison. There were Twentieth Century-Fox files at UCLA, Warner Brothers files at USC, video copies of his earliest films (as a screenwriter) in an archive in Berlin, and it was my duty as a biographer to fork over the cash for the travel and the hotels so I could read or view all this stuff. Think what you will of the book that emerged from such dogged research, but you have to admit it’s not only thorough but pretty damn accurate.

Conversely, there comes a point when the research has to stop and you have to start writing. No, you won’t know everything about your subject. And you never will. There will always be things you’ll never get the chance to learn, people you couldn’t interview, letters you’ll never read. You have to accept this necessary incompletion, and if you ever find yourself using “I still have more research to do” as an excuse for not writing after the first year, you’re telling yourself a big fat lie.

There’s a practical problem as well: financial pressure. Most of us have heard of biographies that were 10 or 12 years in the making. The writers of these books evidently had other sources of income beyond their advances, because the fact of the matter is that biographers don’t get a sizeable chunk of their advances until they turn in their final drafts. So there comes a time when you must, as John Wayne sagely advises in The Searchers, “put an amen to it.” Finish the manuscript, turn the sucker in, and wait for the check to arrive.

There comes a point when the research has to stop and you have to start writing.

Problem 2: Truth.

Accuracy is one thing, truth quite another. They ain’t the same. It’s easy to be accurate while telling a lie. For instance, a sobbing six-year-old tells his distraught mother moments after she pulls up in the driveway, “The house burned down. It started in the living room. A candle tipped over.” All accurate but essentially untrue, because it was the six-year-old who lit the match that lit the candle that fell on the floor and burned the house down.

Biographers can accumulate a mass of facts and report them accurately but selectively, purposely leaving out details that don’t serve the author’s personal agenda. Admiring Charles Lindbergh for his daring does not give his biographers license to leave out his chummy relationship with Hitler. Making cruel fun of Joan Crawford and her violent distaste for wire hangers provides no excuse for her biographer to minimize her talent in general or the specific fact that she won an Oscar – deservedly – for Mildred Pierce. These are broad examples, of course; most biographers lie more subtly than a six-year-old or a bitter Crawford queen. One could – and indeed one did – write a biography of Peter Sellers and paint him as the wackjob he was without any concern for the telling fact that Sellers maintained long and rich friendships with a number of decent, honest, warm and sane people who actively loved him until the day he died. The portrait this biographer paints of Sellers may be accurate, but it remains at its core a wordy lie.

Problem 3: The Fudge Factor

Whereas, the biographer can’t know everything about the life s/he’s chronicling;

Whereas, the biographer cannot be expected to locate and interview every living person who knows or knew the subject of the biography, and whereas, it’s impossible to interview the dead;

Whereas, the biographer begins to breathe the air his subject breathed, to dream about his or her subject regularly (in my case the spirits have always been friendly), and to believe – rightly or wrongly - that he or she knows more about the subject than the subject him- or herself ever could;

Therefore, the biographer is excused for employing the time-honored but rarely acknowledged practice of fudging it.

Authors who resort to the expression “S/he must have known that” are telegraphing to the reader that they really have no proof for their claim. This is not only a failed fudge. It’s bad writing.

There are right and wrong ways to fudge. Since the primary goal of fudging is to keep from getting caught, any overt indication that the material is fudgy immediately renders the fudge a failure. For example, the most self-defeating fudge of all is to haul out the hack phrase, “He must have known that….” Whoa, bud! Why? Why "must” whoever-he-is “have known” this information? Inevitably, the subject “must have known” something because the biographer wants to make his or her own point, so he or she sticks it in the subject’s mind when in point of fact the biographer has no verifiable source for the information. Authors who resort to the expression “S/he must have known that” are telegraphing to the reader that they really have no proof for their claim. This is not only a failed fudge. It’s bad writing.

Another popular failed fudge is faking knowledge of a novel, play, painting, film, poem, or piece of music that the biographer has not experienced personally by quoting some almost-always-useless critic on the novel, play, and so on in question. The only valid reason for quoting a critic instead of writing one’s own critique is to establish what the putative contemporary reaction to the subject and his or her work is. But this is suspect, too, because in no sense does, say, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times – he reviewed films at that paper from 1940 to 1967, and his reviews seem more and more inane as time passes – represent anyone’s view of a given film but his own. Reviews are not capsule guides to audience reception and cannot be employed as such. A middlebrow reviewer from New York like Crowther can’t possibly represent the views of millions of moviegoers around the world. So why bother with Crowther and his kind at all? See the movie, read the novel, and hear the music yourself or don’t offer any critique at all.

So how does one fudge successfully? Well, if your biography runs over 650 pages in print (as does On Sunset Boulevard, for example), nobody’s going to notice a vague sentence or two here and there. Here's the key: Be subtle about anything and you’ll likely get away with it.

In fact, the simplest fudge is silence. Here’s a confession: I wrote a biography of Bette Davis called Dark Victory, and I found Davis’s victory to be so dark that I couldn’t bear to watch any more of her made-for-television movies of the 1970s and ‘80s, let alone write about them. The ones I saw were just too depressing; sitting by helplessly as one of the toughest and most talented women in Hollywood reduced herself to the likes of Murder with Mirrors (1985) was unbearable. The palpable grief I felt at Davis’s decline threatened to derail the whole book, so I mentioned Murder with Mirrors in passing and was done with it. Did I follow my own precepts and actually see the film? Did I know it was dismissable or did I just guess?

I’ll never tell.

Image of Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis
Author: Ed Sikov
Price: $28.67
Publisher: Holt Paperbacks (2008)
Binding: Paperback, 512 pages

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