Wednesday, June 15, 2011


This comes courtesy of Robert Lacey, British historian and biographer, who forwarded the talk given by Robert Caro (reported by Andrea Pitzer) at the The 2011 BIO Conference

“Show, don’t tell” is a mantra of narrative writers everywhere, but even the most useful adage can lose meaning with repetition. Before a lunchtime audience of writers at the second annual Compleat Biographer Conference, legendary biographer Robert Caro reinvigorated the concept.

How did he do it? With a vivid evocation of the way that place can reveal motivation and illuminate character—making direct explanation completely unnecessary.

In the National Press Club ballroom, BIO president Nigel Hamilton presented Caro with the 2011 BIO Award. Hamilton noted that the prize honored what Caro has done “not just for the craft of biography but for the standing of biography itself in our society.” Setting, Caro suggested, plays a vital role in timeless fiction:

“The greatest of books are books with places you can see in your mind’s eye,” he said, “The deck of the Pequod while the barefoot sailors are hauling the parts of the whale aboard to melt them down for oil. The battlefield at Borodino as Napoleon, looking down from a hill on his mighty imperial guard, has to decide whether to wave them forward into battle. Miss Havisham’s room, the room in which she was to have been married, the room in which she received the letter that told her that the man she loved wasn’t coming, the room with the clock stopped forever at the minute she got the news, the room with the wreckage of the wedding feast that has never been taken away.”

Yet, Caro noted, few reviews point to the power of place in nonfiction. The value of place, widely acknowledged as a key component of literature, he suggested, is often overlooked in biography.

“If the place is important enough in the character’s life,” he said, “if on the most basic level he spent enough time in it, was brought up in it or presided over it, like the Senate, or exercised power in it, like the White House; if the place, the setting, played a crucial role in shaping the character’s feelings, drives, motivations, insecurities, then by describing the place well enough, the author will have succeeded in bringing the reader closer to an understanding of the character without giving him a lecture, will have made the reader therefore not just understand but empathize with a character, will have made the readers’ understanding more vivid, deeper than any lecture could.”

Further details:

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