Making the Past Relevant (by Diversifying Biographies)

From author Heather Demetrios in Publishers Weekly:

After reading my new biography of World War II spy Virginia Hall, Code Name Badass, a seasoned biographer told me, “I’m… pleasantly surprised you got away with it!” The surprise was justified: it’s not often you see a YA nonfiction work that’ll make your grandma clutch her pearls. Badass is meant to read like an episode of Drunk History, with all the irreverence of the Comedy Central hit intact—but with more than 50 pages of endnotes.

My Pussy Riot–style ambush on the genre has f-bombs falling on its pages. This book comes to the fight with brass knuckles and one of the most audacious women ever to enter the ring of war as its subject. I wanted the language to reflect the dirty fighting of guerilla warfare and the culture of my readers, most of whom armor themselves for the daily onslaught of the patriarchy with clothing and accessories emblazoned with so-called foul language.

It’s possible to drop an f-bomb and an endnote at the same time, I assure you.

Despite the increasing presence of female writers, subjects, and narrative approaches to nonfiction, I’m still not seeing many books that marry the deep research required of a quality biography with bingeable prose. With the rights of women constantly under threat, the last thing my readers want is another biography by the man, for the man, about a man. I may be writing about the past, but the future is female.

It was exhilarating to write the book I wanted to read—as though I’d ditched history class and hung out behind the gym, sneaking a cigarette with the French Resistance instead of reading a dry chapter on the early days of asymmetrical warfare.

Badass is about a disabled woman whose job was to be invisible, but who was also rendered invisible not only by the men in power she worked with but by the privileged few who chose to write and acquire biographies. Did I want to make a little noise with my book, since its subject was often silenced? Hell yes I did. And to be heard over all the dudes in the biography section, I knew I’d need to do a bit of literary shouting.

. . . .

We’ll always have the scholarship and heft of a David McCullough or Ron Chernow. But many readers I know—myself included—long for biography that’s infused with the energy of the subject’s life (often iconoclastic, passionate, and dramatic) and wouldn’t mind seeing a clear line drawn between the past and the present. In short: relevant biography, as modern as its 21st-century readership.

I’m not alone in taking the genre’s road less traveled, but I want to see more writers on this road with me. There’s no map, but you have a lot of fun getting where you’re going.

I share some of Virginia Hall’s privileges: I’m white, middle-class, educated, American. Hall’s access to education and travel is what allowed her to become one of the greatest spies of all time. But she was also disabled and a woman. These two barriers created numerous obstacles throughout her life. And yet it was her character—her grit, moxie, and doggedness—that made me want to write about her.

In order to do Hall’s extraordinary life justice, I had to write in a way that was as divergent as the woman herself.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG suggests that anyone who believes inserting obscenities anywhere in a book is daring or unusual has mixed up 2021 with 1960.

If you’re gonna be a rebel, you need to do something that’s not passé. Nose rings don’t count. YA Fiction is purely a creation of the New York publishing world. You can put anything in a book and call it YA. You might pick up some one-star reviews on Amazon, but, if you’re a real rebel, what other people think doesn’t mean a thing.

The OP author’s latest book is Code Name Badass: The True Story of Virginia Hall and is published by Atheneum Books which is owned by Simon & Schuster which is owned by ViacomCBS.

The person who has total control of ViacomCBS is Sheri Redstone, a wealthy heiress who took over the company from her father, Sumner Redstone.

Perhaps the author of the OP and Ms. Redstone can get together to talk about how their rights as women are constantly under threat.

9 thoughts on “Making the Past Relevant (by Diversifying Biographies)”

  1. It’s always refreshing to know that I’m not the only one to get cranky about these things, PG.

    Although it is not “daring” to use obscenities in a book, I do get annoyed when they are used gratuitously. If a fictional character should use them in a scene, or a real person being biographized used them, no problem. (Although the latter should be thoroughly confirmed.)

  2. Well, if all you’re doing is cribbing a recent bio for the YA market (A Woman of No Importance, 2019), you have to add something to draw attention to yourself.

  3. While I have no argument with your observation about the use of obscenity in books–even in genres like biography, YA or not, I confess that I was deeply disappointed by your last sentence. If you think the rights of women are not constantly under threat, you must not be paying attention to the news out of Texas lately, much less that from much of the rest of the world. You could have left that last sentence off without damaging your argument in the least.

    • “Women’s rights” in Texas is certainly not in the same hemisphere as women’s rights in the rest of the world {e.g. being treated as chattel in Saudi Arabia and needing a man’s permission to do anything, or being killed for obtaining an education}. Besides, those “rights” were given by SCOTUS in a case about birth control.

      • Invented might be more accurate than given.
        They short-circuited an ongoing discussion and prevented a consensus on bounds from emerging. Instead, we’ve had 50 years of folks talking past each other.
        With violence thrown in for leavening.
        And now some unusually clever and very dangerous legalizing.
        A lose-lose is looming.

        (BTW, the US is almost alone among developed, democratic societies in lacking a proper *explicit* privacy right with legistated bounds because the establishment has been operating under the murky and vague “implied right of privacy”. Shortcuts rarely work out well.)

    • Madam, in the state of Texas, your rights as a woman are as under threat as those of property holders in the South in 1865.

      Less so, actually.

    • A. – I got behind on reviewing the discussions in the comments to posts on TPV.

      First, I didn’t mean to offend anyone except, perhaps Ms. Redstone and author of the OP by my comment and sorry that I may have offended you.

      Second, while I have no argument with the proposition that many women have been and are currently treated badly in many parts of the world, I don’t believe that Ms. Redstone suffers from anything that is much different than her father suffered when he was the head of a very large media empire.

      As far as the author of the OP is concerned, I didn’t see any evidence in the OP that she felt oppressed as a woman or had any reasonable expectation that such oppression was right around the corner, waiting to fall upon her.

      I don’t think that generalizations about large groups of people are usually accurate.

      Some women are certainly oppressed in Texas or in any other part of the world. However, other women in Texas, the rest of the United States and in many other countries do not feel oppressed at all and, if asked, would say that they’re not oppressed, but, in fact, lead very enjoyable lives and feel no restrictions on how they choose to live and act beyond those restrictions common to both women and men in what are generally regarded as civilized and comfortable places.

      I expect you may be referring to a recent state law in Texas allowing lawsuits against any abortion provider that performs an abortion where the human embryo is more than six weeks old, the so-called “Texas Heartbeat Act.”

      While I personally believe the act to be unconstitutional under a variety of US Supreme Court decisions and related decisions by lower courts following Supreme Court precedent, the law was passed by the elected representatives of the state and signed into law by the governor of the state.

      Several female legislators voted for the bill so, presumably, as women they didn’t believe the law threatened the rights of Texas women. While I understand that traveling to a nearby state (or Mexico) to have an abortion that is legal in that state while being illegal in Texas is not an option for some lower income Texas women, it is certainly an option for more than a few Texas women.

      I will also mention in passing that, in the real world, I don’t think that most slippery-slope arguments that a small action will lead to an avalanche of horror stand up to serious analysis.

    • If you think the rights of women are not constantly under threat, you must not be paying attention to the news out of Texas lately, much less that from much of the rest of the world.

      Absolutely. When Virginia school girls are getting raped in the restroom by guys in skirts who think they are girls, the sky is indeed falling. When some other guys decide they are girls and dominate girls sports, the sky is casting a shadow. When women defend both of these, the sky has landed. I expect someone will soon call it an existential threat.

      And Mario Savio beat the OP to the punch line in 1964. Shocking.

  4. The writer in the OP has no human rights threatened, nor do American women in general. That we still are inundated with the message that we are victims – and by women in positions of power – does no one any good. Which is what I believe PG was pointing out. Hypocrisy, blindness, and kneejerk protestations about how woe, poor women, still forced to be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen and do nothing else. Nope, hasn’t been true for a very long time.

    THe OP had me rolling my eyes at the standard ‘women are ignored by everyone’ verbiage.

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