Friday, February 26, 2016

Notes on Contributors

How many of us read the ‘About the Author’ section, or the Notes on Contributors, those short biographies given on dustwrapper flaps, or front free endpapers, or at the back of books? They are perhaps the sort of thing, along with the blurb, that the casual browser glances at when deciding whether to buy a book. And, when the book is bought, they are apt to be perused before the reader settles into the text itself. These Notes, we may think, are generally read, whereas the book may sometimes be put aside.

I must admit to finding them diverting, often for the wrong reasons. In an anthology I once received and soon jettisoned (mercifully I’ve forgotten its title), each piece was preceded by a whole two pages about the author. By the time I’d got to the end of these, I had next to no energy left for the stories. In one, an author thought it important to tell us that he owned not one, but two, holiday homes in, let us say, Moldavia (it wasn’t, but I’m trying to be discreet). I could not help thinking that at least one of these might have been better used as the home of a Moldavian. On the other hand, a note I recently saw in the Times Literary Supplement (the TLS), advising us that “X is a freelance writer living in London”, and no more, might be deemed somewhat laconic.

Quite a few writers (me included) sometimes opt, in their notes, to give an idea of quantity, as if the sheer volume of their output might reassure the reader. We learn that Y has written several hundred stories, and Z has appeared in over forty publications. “Oh yes: how many good ones?” seems the only suitable retort. Sometimes we appear to be caught in the middle of a bizarre bidding game, as each author tries to trump the next with the weight of their output.

I am reminded of the old story about the impressively prolific and long-lived romantic novelist Barbara Cartland, who boasted she had written “over 200 books”, to which a weary commentator drawled in reply, “Oh, really? One a year, then.” Although Barbara and I share a birthday (not, I hasten to add, in the same year), I don’t actually know myself how much I’ve written, and I have a sort of superstition about not counting. This is partly because early on I thought that, like the Decadent writers I so much admired, a “slim oeuvre” of a few wan volumes was all one needed. The puzzling yearning to continue writing has, however, rather put paid to that idea by now.

My own approach when asked for biographical notes is generally just to list recent publications so that, if readers like my stuff they know where they can find more, and, if not, they know what to avoid. Occasionally, however, editors ask for “something more personal”. Yet even the briefest of personal revelations has its pitfall. Each year, the TLS gossip column ‘N.B.’, on its back page, conducts a campaign against the proliferation of gift books for Christmas, because of their vacuous content and vulgarity. One year their chief fulminator noticed that the authors of such books seemed always to live in the country with cats. Ah.

But I have at least, I hope, largely managed to avoid two other practices that have caused special vituperations amongst the tetchy. One is the would-be jollified potted biography, where for example we learn the author is “the third most dangerous tiddlywinks player in Chichester”. The other is the author with a sequence of improbable jobs: “Westward Penge has been a carver of ship’s figureheads, artichoke juggler, and unsuccessful gigolo and for a while made his living as an itinerant sword-swallower in Central Europe.” I don’t think my own crust-earning sequence of “paper boy, petrol pump attendant, archaeology assistant, filing clerk, civil servant” has quite the right ring, somehow.

Still, supplying a few hundred words about yourself is certainly better than being asked for a photograph.

Picture: Shadow and Shimmer, our cats.


  1. Perhaps more authors should simply post pictures of their cats, without further comment. That would pique my interest!

  2. PS Shadow and Shimmer are majestic!

  3. Lovely essay, Mark. In the future my own biographical note will say that I live in a yurt, subsist entirely on goat's milk, and write with reed pens that I fashion myself. Strangely enough, though, like Westward Penge, I too have been an unsuccessful gigolo. Determination and persistence seemed to make little difference, despite my taste for Italian silk shirts and tasteless gold jewelry. However, I have won blue ribbons from county fairs for my dazzling virtuosity on the accordion. (This last is, actually, true, though I haven't kept up those razzle-dazzle skills on the keyboard.) md

  4. I'm reminded of Vincent Price anecdote. Director Michael Reeves was only 25 years old when he made the movie Witchfinder General (known in the U.S. as The Conqueror Worm). Reeves had to keep telling Vincent Price to tone down his over-acting. Annoyed, Price finally said, "Young man, I have made eighty-four films. What have you done?" Reeves replied: "I've made three - good ones." After that, Reeves got a superb performance from Price.

  5. On reading your essay, like Vincent Price in one of his Poe films where he yet again found a woman had been buried alive, I felt impelled to yell "True! True!" Though I've never written fiction, I penned a decade or more of rock journalism which on second thoughts may be seen as equally improbable as some tales. On recently moving house I was confronted with my vast output in the form of crumbling scrapbooks, which I consigned to the bin. You are so right about quantity not always being commensurate with quality! I now live in leafy Barnes, and my flatmate's cat Yo Yo is insane.

  6. I can't help thinking, Michael, that your career as a gigolo might have had more success if you hadn't insisted on talking about those books all the time...

    Thanks everyone for the Vincent Price, and cats, comments - both worth celebrating.


  7. Always ambivalent about biographical notes: crucibles of insecurity for both the authors and readers of such things. No need for detail but on one occasion a project I was working on became so fractious that I found myself repeatedly editing down my own bio note to the absolute bare minimum. A petty, unnecessary and utterly ineffective bit of passive aggression. Nonetheless, it seemed at the time like a good way of extricating myself from the bad vibes if only at a symbolic level.

  8. The value in biographical notes to me is that when I read something I like, I want to know want else this person has published. Flippancy turns me off.