The art of writing a good biography, says Craig Brown in LitHub, is knowing “what to leave out”. And it’s something few biographers get right. In John Richardson’s multi-volume A Life of Picasso, we learn the exact day the painter checked into the Savoy Hotel in 1919 (25 May), his room number (574), the number to which the room has since been changed (536), “and so on and so forth”. No wonder when Richardson died in 2019, aged 95, he “still had 41 years of Picasso’s life to cover”. Likewise, readers of Mark Lewisohn’s history of The Beatles might well be interested to learn that George Harrison’s first car was a Ford Anglia. But do they really need to know it was “a second-hand two-door blue Ford Anglia 105E Deluxe, bought by George from Brian Epstein’s friend Terry Doran who worked at a car dealership in Warrington”?
The other mistake biographers make is trying to be too authoritative a source. In the very last sentence of Mao: The Unknown Story, Jung Chang somehow finds access to the Chinese premier’s dying thoughts: “His mind remained lucid to the end, and in it stirred just one thought: himself and his power.” How on earth did she know? Robert Lacey’s biography of Queen Elizabeth is much the same, describing a Balmoral breakfast scene in which Her Majesty narrows her eyes, firms her jaw and shifts her chin forward “a fraction”. It’s incredible detail. Presumably “the intrepid Mr Lacey” was in the room himself that morning, “perhaps hiding under the table with a periscope”.