Pretty Girls Can’t Write Serious Non-Fiction

July 7th, 2008 · 4 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

BS is moving into its shiny new headquarters today (as long as the Internet gods shine upon us!), so all thoughts are focused on frantic last-minute packing. Only the cat has completed her move-related tasks, though, in all honesty, she didn’t bring as many clothes. Frantic minds need distractions, and we have a fun one today.

It comes as news that a “genteel world of historical biography” exists, much less that it’s being destroyed by “glamorous young female writers trying to make a quick killing in the bestseller lists”. Who knew?

It’s a new twist on the age-old youth are ruining the world meme. Damn kids, can’t be trusted to followed hallowed tradition. Don’t they know that biography is supposed to be dull and biographers even duller? Even if you’re writing about lust and scandal and depravity, you must be staid. It simply doesn’t do to have fun with life.

Naturally, all of this fussing is happening in the UK. One Kathryn Hughes, who, so worried about this, published an article called “The Death of Life Writing”, mostly because Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, got all naked in print. Real naked with books. Tawdry, indeed. Hughes is agitated because Foreman, whose book, it should be noted, was published in 1998, is still marketing her work. Horrors!

Of course, Foreman’s nudity is not what really worries Hughes. She more concerned with the fact that pseudo-celebrities are pumping out “autobiographies” (use of quotes very intentional) like they’re real authors. We all know they aren’t and we all know these silly books are like candy on a publisher list. You cannot expect the life memories of a 24-year old to be compelling, much less intellectually meaty.

Publishers adore this stuff, for reasons that have everything to do with selling a whole bunch of units quickly and nothing to do with logic. These instant biographies are not killing the weighty world of historical biography. Amanda Foreman, nude or not, is not killing the weighty world of historical biography. The truth of the matter is that many of these works simply don’t appeal to a broad audience.

Or, hmmm, maybe they do, but the insistence on treating them like little pearls of historical fustiness is the differences between selling over 200,000 copies of a book and

Hughes wrote in The Guardian: “By choosing to be photographed nude behind a pile of books, and by allowing her own life story — starry father, tricky adolescence — to become as important as the person she was writing about, Foreman did an accidental disservice to biography in general and to young women biographers in particular.”

Hughes, whose most recent book, The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton, has sold a respectable 28,759 copies, added: “Since Foreman’s unprecedented hit, photogenic young women are routinely commissioned to produce biographies of equally camera-ready subjects, regardless of whether they are equipped to do so. The results are often intellectually slight and stylistically poor.”

While we might agree that Mrs. Beeton was a, ahem, household name to a certain generation, Georgiana and her life are far more engaging from a storytelling perspective. Two different books, two different audiences, two different authors.

And one serious case of sour grapes.

Hughes needs to get over herself. It’s not the photogenic girls writing fluff who are destroying her world. Pretty girls are the red herring.

File Under: Square Pegs

4 responses so far ↓

  • Evangeline // Jul 7, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    Ha! I would feel this argument had some form of validity if it were for the fact that the authors listed at the end have impressive CVs. If they weren’t attractive and educated at the best colleges in the UK, they wouldn’t receive half the attention they do. The same thing happens on this side of the pond: the credentials (and a little attractiveness) is used to get a foot in the door and used by publishers as a selling point.

    Methinks it’s sour grapes on Hughes part– if these women were writing shoddy, ill-researched biographies with turgid prose, she would have a point, but their books are lively, accurate and easy to read while still retaining a bit of scholarship.

  • Kym // Jul 9, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    It is definetely Sour Grapes.
    Well, said, well written, Kassia Krozser 🙂

  • The Pretty Writer // Aug 5, 2008 at 4:42 am

    ‘Pretty girl can’t write serious non-fiction’

    – said the ugly girl.

  • Amanda Foreman // Sep 11, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    To be honest, if I had known that the “Tatler photograph” – which I did a year after the book came out, and was part of a series called ‘forty under-forties: their bare essentials’ – was going to become such a scandal, I would have made an effort on the day and washed my hair. Oh well, one lives and learns. Truly, youth is wasted on the young.