Fiction and Biographies

by Jason Sanford

In recent years the online world has given birth to a new literary phenomenon: the instant bio. Before the internet, if you wanted the biography of a writer, you were forced to waddle to the bookstore or library for one of the author’s books. There, on the dustjacket or just inside the cover, ran a short paragraph or two on their life, a list of publications, and—if you were really lucky—an actual author picture. Aside from their writings, pre-internet authors were anonymous little figures in most reader’s minds.

Now, though, it seems as if every writer has their biography floating across the land. These bios are pasted inside publications, on websites, and plaster brochures from every little workshop or MFA school (the trend is so powerful that even storySouth gave in and lists bios). I suspect some people don’t even read the stories published in magazines anymore—they just peruse the contributor’s page, evaluate the content by the number of impressive bios, and walk away imagining they have had the same experience as actually reading the stories.

This makes me wonder if storytelling is becoming merely an exercise in writing a long, enticing bio.

When I have to post a bio—either as a writer or an editor—I sometimes give readers what I call a stereotype test:

Jason Sanford was born in Alabama in the early ’70s. His family lived at the end of a mile-long dirt road in a green doublewide trailer. As children, he and his brother chased each other across cotton fields. He learned to shoot a rifle at age five.

The way I see it, people react to these words based on their stereotypes of the south. When people from the south read this, I hope they see the mix of love and irony in what I’m saying. When people outside the south read these facts, I imagine their twisted smirks of, “He must be such a redneck.” As with all biographies, there are many truths hidden in the details of a life.

On one level, literature’s overuse of biographies is an attempt around the depersonalized aspects of our modern lives. A bio is a way to know someone in an information age where there are no visual cues, no tones of voice in conversation, no comforting small talk or blather. Instead we let people’s own words describe who they imagine themselves to be.

Of course, when you rely on someone’s words as to who they are, you’re weaving dangerously close to the world of fiction. This is especially the case online. Way too many of the people I’ve “talked to” in chat rooms or by e-mail have turned out to be fiction—a pseudonym story created by anonymous people cloaked in their fake biographical lives.

In truth, the best fiction always deals with bios: Who people are. Who we suspect them to be. Who a person is when their internal biography differs from the bio the rest of the world thinks it knows.

In fiction as in life, we are who we make ourselves out to be.

The next time you go to a bookstore or to an online magazine, don’t read the authors’ bios. Instead, dig into their fiction. I promise you will learn much more about the authors through their stories than you ever will through any so-called biography.

Jason Sanford is the fiction editor of storySouth.