Earlier this year, I found what may perhaps be the Platonic bad author bio, the one that most effectively discourages the prospective reader from perusing what is within. And to render it an even better example for my purposes here, this peerless bio belongs to one of my all-time favorite authors, Rachel Ingalls. Her work is brilliant, magical, genuinely one-of-a-kind.
And as I have read every syllable she has ever published, I can state with confidence: never have I seen an author bio less indicative of the quality of the actual writing.
Yes, dear readers, that is what writing this blog for the last two years has done to my psyche: discovering a specimen that might do you good, even if it disappoints me personally, now makes me cackle with glee.
I don’t feel bad about using her bio as an example here, because honestly, I think everyone on earth should rush right out and read Ingalls’ BINSTEAD’S SAFARI before they get a minute older. (In fact, if you want to open a new window, search for the Powell’s website, and order it before you finish reading this, I won’t be offended at all. Feel free. I don’t mind waiting.)
But my God, her bios make her sound… well, I’ll let you see for yourself. This bio is lifted from the back of her newest book, TIMES LIKE THESE:
Rachel Ingalls grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has lived in London since 1965 and is the author of several works of fiction — most notably MRS. CALIBAN — published both in the United States and United Kingdom.
Just this, accompanied by a very frightening author photo, one that looks as though she might take a bite out of the photographer.
I have no problem with the photo — after all, this is a writer who gave the world a very beautiful story in which the protagonists are consumed by carnivorous toads, so a sense of menace seems downright appropriate. But have you ever seen a piece of prose less revealing of personality?
Admittedly, U.K. author bios tend to be on the terse side, compared to their American brethren (as H.G. Wells wrote, “the aim of all British biography is to conceal”), but even so, why bother to have a bio at all, if it is not going to reveal something interesting about the author?
I have particular issues with this bio, too, because of the offhand way in which it mentions MRS. CALIBAN (1983), which was named one of America’s best postwar novels by the British Book Marketing Council. Don’t you think that little tidbit was worth at least a PASSING mention in her bio?
In fact, I learned about Rachel Ingalls’ work in the first place because of the BBMC award. We’re both alumnae of the same college (which is to say: we both applied to Harvard because we had good grades, and both were admitted to Radcliffe, because we were girls), and during my junior and senior years, I worked in the Alumnae Records office. Part of my job was filing news clippings about alumnae. In the mid-1980s, the TIMES of London ran an article about the best American novels published since WWII, using the BBMC’s list as a guide.
Rachel Ingalls’ MRS. CALIBAN was on it, and the American mainstream press reaction was universal: Who?
Really, a novel about a housewife who has an affair with a six-foot salamander is not VERY likely to slip your mind, is it? The fact is, at the time, her work was almost entirely unknown — and undeservedly so — on this side of the pond.
Naturally, I rushed right out and bought MRS. CALIBAN, followed by everything else I could find. Stunned, I made all of my friends read her; my mother and I started vying for who could grab each new publication first. She became my standard for how to handle day-to-day life in a magical manner.
The TIMES story was picked up all over North America, so I ended up filing literally hundreds of clippings about it. And, I have to confess: being a novelist at heart in a position of unbearable temptation, I did read her alumnae file cover to cover. So I have it on pretty good authority that she had more than enough material for a truly stellar author bio — if not a memoir — and that was almost 20 years ago.
And yet I see, as I go through the shelf in my library devoted to housing her literary output, that she has ALWAYS had very minimal author bios. Check out the doozy on 1992’s BE MY GUEST:
Rachel Ingalls was brought up and educated in Massachusetts. She has lived in London since 1965.
I’ve seen passports with more information on them. Occasionally, the travelogue motif has varied a little. Here’s a gem from a 1988 paperback edition of THE PEARLKILLERS:
Rachel Ingalls, also the author of I SEE A LONG JOURNEY and BINSTEAD’S SAFARI, has been cited by the British Book Marketing Council as one of America’s best postwar novelists.
Better, right? But would it prepare you even vaguely for the series of four scintillating novellas within that book jacket, one about an apparently cursed Vietnam widow, one about a long-secret dorm murder, one about a failed Latin American exploratory journey turned sexual spree, and one about a recent divorcée discovering that she is the ultimate heiress of a plantation full of lobotomized near-slaves?
No: from the bio alone, I would expect her to write pretty mainstream stuff.
Once, some determined soul in her publisher’s marketing department seems to have wrested from her some modicum of biographical detail, for the 1990 Penguin edition of SOMETHING TO WRITE HOME ABOUT:
Rachel Ingalls grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the age of seventeen, she dropped out of high school and subsequently spent two years in Germany: one living with a family, the second auditing classes at the universities of Göttingen, Munich, Erlangen, and Cologne. After her return to the United States, she entered Radcliffe College, where she earned a degree in English. She has had six books published, including BINSTEAD’S SAFARI and THE PEARL KILLERS (sic). In 1964 (sic) she moved to England, where she has been living ever since.
Now, typos aside, that’s a pretty engaging personal story, isn’t it? (And doesn’t it just haunt you, after having read the other bios: why does this one say she moved to London a year earlier than the others? What is she hiding? WHAT HAPPENED DURING THAT MYSTERIOUS YEAR?) Doesn’t it, in fact, illustrate how a much more interesting author bio could be constructed from the same material as the information-begrudging others were?
I was intrigued by why this bio was so much more self-revealing than the others, so I started checking on the publication history of this book. Guess what? The original 1988 edition of this book had been released by the Harvard Common Press, located easy walking distance from Radcliffe Alumnae Records. Could it be that I was not the only fan of her writing who had gone file-diving?
“Talent is a kind of intelligence,” Jeffrey Eugenides tells us in MIDDLESEX, but all too often, writers’ faith in their talent’s ability to sell itself is overblown. Good writing does not sell itself anymore; when marketing even the best writing, talent, alas, is usually not enough. Especially not in the eyes of North American agents and editors, who expect to see some evidence of personality in prospective writers’ bios. If they didn’t want the information, they wouldn’t ask for it.
Think of the bio as another marketing tool for your work. They want to know not just if you can write, but also if you would make a good interview. And, not entirely selflessly, whether you are a person they could stand to spend much time around. Because, honestly, throughout the publication process, it’s you they are going to have to keep phoning and e-mailing, not your book.
Meet ’em halfway. Produce an interesting author bio to accompany your submissions. Because, honestly, readers like me can only push your work on everyone within shouting distance AFTER your books get published.
Speaking of which, if I have not already made myself clear: if you are even remotely interested in prose in the English language, you really should get ahold of some of Rachel Ingalls’ work immediately. You don’t want to be the last on your block to learn how to avoid the carnivorous toads, do you?
Practical hints on sounding fascinating follow tomorrow. Keep up the good work!