The best books about reimagining biography

Rachel Hope Cleves Author Of Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality
By Rachel Hope Cleves

The Books I Picked & Why

The Quest for Corvo

By A. J. A. Symons

The Quest for Corvo

Why this book?

Before Symons published The Quest for Corvo in 1934, many biographies were little more than hagiographies, or boring tomes about unblemished saints. Symons redefined biography by writing a mystery story, featuring himself as a historical detective seeking to understand how a character as disagreeable as Frederick Rolfe, a.k.a. Baron Corvo, could have authored beautiful novels like Hadrian the Seventh.


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Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of D. H. Lawrence

By Geoff Dyer

Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of D. H. Lawrence

Why this book?

A funnier book has never been written about the anxieties and frustrations of a would-be biographer. Dyer’s memoir of his misadventures traveling around Sicily, New Mexico, and Britain while not writing the biography of D. H. Lawrence, is a hilarious and totally relatable tale of failure.


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The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

By Janet Malcolm

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

Why this book?

In my secret heart of hearts, I wrote my most recent book, Unspeakable, for an audience of one: Janet Malcolm. All her prose is sharp, but her anti-biography of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes is spectacular in its exploration of the question: is it even possible to write a truthful biography?


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All We Know: Three Lives

By Lisa Cohen

All We Know: Three Lives

Why this book?

Through sheer magic, Lisa Cohen manages to combine three lives that defy biography into a beautifully written group portrait of mid-century lesbian modernism. Although Cohen writes that “every biography is a disappointment of some kind,” her book about Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland thrilled me from start to finish.


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Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals

By Saidiya V. Hartman

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals

Why this book?

The violence of the archives challenges the retelling of the lives of Black women, whose voices were rarely judged worthy of preservation by white society. Hartman makes art of the traces of the radical lives of Black women at the turn of the twentieth century, bringing her literary imagination to break open the archival traces her subjects left behind. 


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