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Biography: A User's Guide Hardcover – May 9, 2008

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Biography: A User's Guide + Biography: A Very Short Introduction + How To Do Biography: A Primer
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Ivan R. Dee; 1ST edition (May 9, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1566637805
  • ISBN-13: 978-1566637800
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #741,001 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


Carl Rollyson knows more about biographies than anyone else in the world. His independent mind, his experience, and his voracious reading have equipped him to produce amazing insights into the reading—and writing—of biographies. A unique book. (Ann Waldron, author of The Reconstruction of a Racist)

Wide ranging and provocative, Carl Rollyson's guide takes an intrepid journey through the many ramifications of biography—its history, its subjects, its practitioners, and its pitfalls. The section on 'fair use' alone makes his book essential reading for everyone involved in the art of writing lives. Add to those Rollyson's trenchant reviews of biographies new and old, and the guide becomes a master class in the virtues and vices of its subject. (Mary S. Millar)

For biographers, Rollyson has written an absolutely essential guide to compelling biographical issues. But Biography: A User's Guide is also a treat for readers of literature—and anyone who loves good gossip. It's studded with gems of provocative insight and behind-the-scenes stories. Rollyson, a seasoned biographer, makes no secret of his biases or his reputation as a biographical outlaw: the story of his adventures in writing his biography of Susan Sontag is more than worth the price of admission. A fascinating book. (Mary Dearborn)

Carl Rollyson's Biography: A User's Guide offers something witty and wonderful for everybody. Readers of biographies will be amazed to get a backstage guided tour of how these books are really produced. Writers of biographies should keep a copy under their pillows. (Marion Meade)

Carl Rollyson is to biography what Boswell was to Johnson: indispensable. An excellent biographer himself, Rollyson is also the finest critic of the art as well as a thoroughly delightful guide to the pleasures of reading biography and the perils of writing it. (Patricia O'Toole)

With his high-powered and perceptive page-turners on Lillian Hellman, Rebecca West, Martha Gellhorn and Susan Sontag, Carl Rollyson has shown himself to be amongst the very first rank of contemporary biographical practitioners. More than this, however, with Biography: A User's Guide, Rollyson now proves that he is also the genre's foremost and most brilliant anatomist. His new book is typically erudite, mischievous, irresistible, and endlessly stimulating. (Roger Lewis)

Reflections on the biographer's art have become too much the domain of literary critics. It is timely that ground has been recovered with Carl Rollyson's Biography: A User's Guide, written by a practicing biographer who mixes reflection with commentary on the practical and ethical aspects of the craft, and who is not afraid to speak his mind. Here's a book to read and heed whatever one's position on the totem pole. (Doug Munro)

For anyone mad enough to write a biography, this witty, definitive book is absolutely essential reading. For anyone who merely loves reading biography, it's a smashing insider's guide. Mr. Rollyson is informed and passionate and fun about a subject he knows intimately. He's also unafraid to let his personal opinions show, thank goodness. In short, he's written a wonderfully entertaining biography about the art of biography. (John Heilpern)

Promise(s) to generate discussion in the field. (The Biographer's Craft)

The topical strategy may help readers who think, much like a biographer, in terms of categories, thus suiting Rollyson's work for writers and students. (Marianne Orme Library Journal)

Rollyson is a lively and opinionated and knowledgeable writer, with much to impart. (Sven Birkerts The Boston Globe)

About the Author

Carl Rollyson has written biographies of Rebecca West, Norman Mailer, Martha Gellhorn, Lillian Hellman, Marilyn Monroe, and (with Lisa Paddock) Susan Sontag. He lives in Cape May County, New Jersey.

More About the Author

Carl Rollyson, Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York, has published more than forty books ranging in subject matter from biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Norman Mailer, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, and Jill Craigie to studies of American culture, genealogy, children's biography, film, and literary criticism. He has authored more than 500 articles on American and European literature and history. His work has been reviewed in newspapers such as The New York Times and the London Sunday Telegraph and in journals such as American Literature and the Dictionary of Literary Biography. For four years (2003-2007) he wrote a weekly column, "On Biography," for The New York Sun and was President of the Rebecca West Society (2003-2007). His play, THAT WOMAN: REBECCA WEST REMEMBERS, has been produced at Theatresource in New York City. Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography (awarded a "We the People" NEH grant) will be published in August 2013. . "Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews, a biography of Dana Andrews was published in September 2012 by University Press of Mississippi. His biography, "American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath" was published in February 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of her death. His reviews of biography appear regularly in The Wall Street Journal, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Raleigh News & Observer, The Kansas City Star, and The New Criterion. He is currently advisory editor for the Hollywood Legends series published by the University Press of Mississippi. He welcomes queries from those interested in contributing to the series. Read his column, "Biographology," and his blog on http://carlrollyson.com.
Watch the book trailer for Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7xyz9sL3HA
Watch the book trailer for American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M54HJRqrOlU
Audition script for NORMAN MAILER: THE LAST ROMANTIC: http://www.carlrollyson.com/_i_norman_mailer__the_last_romantic__i__113276.htm

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Teacher of Teachers on September 4, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Biographer Rollyson shares his experience and insights in yet another fine contribution to the study of biography (check out all of his books, especially Biography: An Annotated Bibliography and A Higher Form of Cannibalism? Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography). Writers, readers, students, and teachers (that's me) of biography will benefit from the clear, intuitive organization: entries include important biographers (e.g., Lytton Strachey, Samuel Johnson), types and periods (e.g., Psychobiography, Latin/Medieval Biography), and issues pertaining to the craft itself (e.g., Fair Use, Gossip). The entries are informative on their own, but Rollyson also points out further reading. He is a very generous scholar.

In addition to being too useful to pass up, Biography: A User's Guide is, like all of Rollyson's work, fun to read for its own sake. You will be hooked after opening it up and reading just one entry.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Frank Allan Rogers on April 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Carl Rollyson's "biography, a user's guide," shows impeccable research, presents a thorough history of the craft and the crafters, and validates the author's knowledge of his subject. But if you're looking for the basics or a step-by-step guide for writing a biography, this is not it.

Frank Allan Rogers, author Upon A Crazy Horse
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful By James McGrath Morris on May 2, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Just as no fisherman would go through life without Izaak Walton's "The Complete Angler," anyone who writes or simply enjoys biographies will want this book on his or her shelf.
It is a terrific companion for biography writers and lovers.
James McGrath Morris, editor of the monthly "The Biographer's Craft"
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Format: Hardcover
The prospective reader needs to read the introduction. Rollyson there explains that his purpose has been to write a "quirky encyclopedia" whose topic headings are "arbitrary," that reflects his personal "tastes and biases," and that includes his own recycled book reviews. The author suggests that for "a truly random, serendipitous experience, just begin reading alphabetically." But he's also more than accommodating: "Read a line or two, and if it palls, move on to the next item. There is no need to suffer a boring moment and no need to consider the author's feelings."

I took the author at his word and moved through his compilation in one evening, sampling (or not) such topics as "Appearances," "Empathy," "Freud," "Hagiography," "Letters," "Libel," "Obituaries," "Privacy," "Sales," "Suetonius," and "Woolf, Virginia." The book is fun; but in areas with which I was already familiar, I didn't find the book especially accurate or enlightening. For instance, Rollyson says that Edmund Gosse is best known for his Life of Philip Henry Gosse (1890), rather than for his memoir, Father and Son (1907); and Rollyson seems not to know that Ann Thwaite, the biographer of both Gosses, has demonstrated the faultiness of the younger Gosse's recollections.

The most interesting section of the book for me was one that Rollyson himself called unique: "Biographers in Fiction," a description of 37 novelistic treatments of biographers and biographies. So, accept the book for what it is, an enjoyable assortment in which to dip at pleasure.
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