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The death of multi-volume biographies?

September 13, 2012

The Wall Street Journal had this especially grim story this summer:

You Can’t Take a Lifetime to Get It Done
By Joanne Kaufman

More than a dozen years ago, jazz critic Gary Giddins made an appointment with his editor at the publisher William Morrow. Mr. Giddins had some very good news:  He’d completed his manuscript of his long-aborning Bing Crosby biography. But Mr. Giddins also had a bit of bad news: It was merely volume one.

Well, in that case the editor had some bad news of her own: The nine-year-old project was being killed and the advance would have to be returned. “She said, ‘Who’s Bing Crosby? Is it someone our parents knew?’ “ recalled Mr. Giddins, who got a far more sympathetic hearing at Little, Brown & Co., which was immediately on board with the two-volume approach. In 2001, the company published the 768-page Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams—the Early Years (1903-1940). As for Der Bingle’s later years, “all I can say is I’m working every day,” Mr. Giddins said.

It’s an ever-shrinking group, the authors who are given the real estate between multiple sets of hardcovers to chronicle the life and times of their subjects. “I don’t know of anyone who has gotten a contract for a multivolume biography in the last five years,” said David Nasaw, a professor of history at CUNY Graduate Center, whose (one-volume) bio of Joseph P. Kennedy will be published in November. “God bless Bob Caro, but it’s over.”

Robert Caro, the pre-eminent practitioner of the very, very long form, has just published, to much tada-ing, the 712-page Passage of Power, the 10-years-in-the-making fourth volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, a project that began in 1974. The fifth and final installment is yet to come.

Perhaps the Caro fanfare will serve as a spur to Blanche Cook and Sylvia Jukes Morris. Ms. Cook is the author of a three-part biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. Volume one appeared in 1992 and volume two in 1999. The third installment “is under contract though not yet scheduled,” according to a spokeswoman for Ms. Cook’s publisher, Penguin, who declined to say more. Ms. Morris is the author of A Rage for Fame, part one of a projected two-part bio of Clare Boothe Luce that came out in 1997. Fans continue to wait for the sequel; it too is under contract but unscheduled, said a spokeswoman at Random House, Ms. Morris’s publisher, as is the fourth and final volume of John Richardson’s biography of Pablo Picasso. Meanwhile, the second half of James Kaplan’s 2010 Sinatra biography, Frank: The Voice, is due out in 2015.

“The fact is, nobody plans to do more than one volume. It just sort of evolves,” said Victoria Wilson, an editor at Knopf, and she should know:  She’s writing what had been envisioned as a single-volume biography of Barbara Stanwyck, but which has morphed into two volumes. “It became this larger thing, involving not just a history of Hollywood but a history of politics in Hollywood.” Look for the first installment in 2013. Volume two? “There,” said Ms. Wilson, “is the question.”

Writer’s block; the challenges of organizing such a mass of material; a cache of personal papers and correspondence that is suddenly made available and must be sifted through—all these can hold up the delivery of the second or fourth part of a multivolume work. “The immersive authority that’s attained with a long biographical pursuit takes years. It just does,” said Jonathan Karp, the publisher of Simon & Schuster, which will be releasing Ms. Wilson’s Barbara Stanwyck opus.

But long delays present risks. “One issue is new readers,” said Michael Congdon, a New York literary agent. “You don’t know how many of them will be familiar with that author. They may not have even been born when the first volume came out.”

Further, “if an inordinate amount of time passes between two linked volumes, there is a very real possibility that a publisher could fail to build on its own success, lose the interest of a dedicated following, or even cede ground to a competing work,” said Nicholas Latimer, publicity director at Knopf.

You can lose the interest of an author’s loyal following, yes. You can also lose the author. See: Manchester, William, who passed away partway through work on the third and final volume of his Winston Churchill biography. Manchester’s hand-picked successor, Paul Reid, a journalist and amateur historian, took the baton. The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm (1940-1965) will be published in November. (According to a profile in the May issue of Esquire, if Mr. Caro dies before completing the Johnson biography, his will requests that nobody finish it for him.)

Potential downsides notwithstanding—these include the high cost of translating so much text for foreign markets—some industry executives claim to be bullish on multivolume storytelling. “I wish there were more books that authors devoted years of their lives to writing,” said Mr. Karp of Simon & Schuster. “The challenge is how to live on the amount that an advance normally is.”

“I’m sure most publishers will tell you they’re less willing these days to make long-term commitments,” said Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little, Brown, whose list includes Manchester. “But I’ve been here for 20 years, and the question most asked over that time is ‘when is the third volume of Churchill coming out?’ ” That’s evidence that when you have a writer of this caliber, readers are there.

“When Peter Guralnick signed with another publisher to do an Elvis Presley bio, he was told ‘I’m not sure about Elvis in two volumes,’ ” continued Mr. Pietsch, referring to the author of Last Train to Memphis (1994) and Careless Love (1999). “I was the lucky person he turned to. It was two volumes. I wish it had been longer.”

Mr. Pietsch will undoubtedly be pleased to hear that his Crosby biographer is on the road not to Morocco but to the finish line. “I’m supposed to finish this year,” Mr. Giddins conceded. “But the writers I most admire, like Robert Caro, belong to a group that says you put in everything of consequence. I don’t skip anything. On the other hand, I have a 91-year-old mother who wants to know if she’s going to live to read this book.”

Now, I simply must believe that this cannot possibly be taken at face value.  Just looking at biographies written in the 20th and 21st century, there are simply too many excellent multi-volume biographies.  Ignoring for the moment issues of biographies of famous political or military leaders (which cross over into the issue of recording national and international history), how can lives as complex as those of Herman Mellville or W. E. B. DuBois or Martin L. King, for example, possibly be captured in single biographical volumes?

And certainly biographies of political and military leaders often require multi-volume treatment.  (The Caro volumes on Lyndon Johnson fall into this category.)  Moreover, these volumes can have tremendously long shelf lives (thus, for example, Douglas Southall Freeman’s biographies of George Washington [7 volumes] and Robert Lee [4 volumes] remain standard treatments, even though they are dated [Lee dates from 1935].)  Even when multi-volume biographies are not standard treatments, they can often be literary statements of their own.  (Consider Carl Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln [6 volumes].)  The grandparent of modern biographies, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, is long enough to be printed in two volumes by some publishers, and that certainly continues to be read today.

Perhaps commercial publishers will cede publication of serious biography to university presses (as has happened with so much serious non-fiction), and perhaps Robert Murdoch’s News Corp. (publisher of the Wall Street Journal) publishing arms will begin to assume that all of their readers suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder, but one hopes that serious publishers will continue to publish long (multivolume) books for readers who are not satisfied with cursory treatments!

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