Negotiating Voices: Biography and the Curious Triangle between Subject, Author, and Editor

By Gershenowitz, Deborah A. | The Oral History Review, Summer-Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Negotiating Voices: Biography and the Curious Triangle between Subject, Author, and Editor


Gershenowitz, Deborah A., The Oral History Review


Abstract The author edited Sandy Polishuk's Sticking to the Union and Catherine Fosl's Subversive Southerner, and in this article discusses the rocky terrain that oral history-based biographers navigate with their editors, subjects, and perhaps most importantly, their own voices and agendas. The editor's primary responsibility is to ensure that the book offers more than just a compelling collection of transcribed interviews; the editor needs to work with the author to convince readers--many of whom may have never heard of the subject--that the life at the center of the book did not only influence history, but that it is history. The author, when editing these two manuscripts, had to juggle the sometimes contradictory challenges of making judicious cuts and drawing out historical contexts, while retaining the personality of the subjects. When all three sides of this triangle--subject, author, and editor--recognize that negotiation is an essential component of researching, writing, and publishing an oral history-based biography, it can lead to proactive, dynamic conversations, grounded in mutual respect and fueled by the shared goal of using the subject's life story to inspire and teach readers about how individuals can influence our world by taking enormous risks.

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If we've learned one lesson from the exhaustive work Sandy Polishuk and Cate Fosl undertook to produce their insightful biographies of Julia Ruuttila and Anne Braden, it's that a complex bond emerges between subject and author. Sometimes contentious, often exasperating, but above all, intensely emotional, this bond mutates during the interview and writing process, and is usually pretty concrete by the time an editor comes on board--a detached outsider that intrudes on a very intimate relationship. Not only an outsider, the editor is nervy--she asks probing questions about the subject's life that the author and subject may have already decided are verboten, she suggests rather firmly that cherished anecdotes get cut because they seem irrelevant, and perhaps most annoying of all, she warns the author of the perils of hagiography and opines that few readers will be as interested in the subject's life as the author is. In short, the editor is an intruder that at best is a devil's advocate that asks too many questions, and at worst is an ignorant bystander that just doesn't get it at all and is poised to ruin the book.

In this article, I'm going to talk about rocky terrain that oral history-based biographers navigate with their editors, subjects, and perhaps most importantly, their own voices and agendas. In an ideal world, all three people would be on the same page from the outset, but the only way this will happen in the real world is if the editor isn't doing her job, meaning, she isn't picking and prodding at her author's material until the writer is ready to pull her hair out.

Like other crusaders for justice and equal rights for all individuals, regardless of color, class, or gender, Julia Ruuttila and Anne Braden were exceptional individuals with convictions that seemed to be with them since birth, and only grew with experience and struggle. Both women fought their battles in an era where few voices--especially female ones--dared or even thought to challenge the status quo in America, which was grounded on the democratic principle of liberty for all citizens. Of course, official notions of who is a citizen has always been contingent on how those in power define it, and in the nationalistic fervor of the World War II years, and the cold war that followed the war, citizens tended to earn their rights by practicing a patriotism that was rooted in patriarchal, white, and Liberal (I use this with a capital L to distinguish it from liberal ideals and to align it with a middle-of-the-road political culture that did not tolerate any form of liberal--with a small 1--and radical dissent) values. Few people braved this repressive and often violent environment to demand equal rights for all Americans, and that Braden and Ruuttila fought their battles in particularly hostile regions and were severely and repeatedly punished for their struggles, makes their lives not only worthy but necessary of biography. …

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