Virginia Woolf wrote that “Few poets and novelists are capable of that high degree of tension which gives us reality. But almost any biographer, if he respects facts, can give us much more than another fact to add to our collection. He can give us the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders.”[i] Commercially speaking, she’s not wrong. Biographies are in most cases just as popular and influential as works of fiction and certainly more so than poetry—works that we more commonly consider ‘art,’ (though if you’ve read Post I you know how I feel about that). Yet, it’s hard to find remotely as much scholarship about biographies as there is about fiction and poetry, and it’s even harder to find someone to teach you how to write them. My own college had majors in fiction, poetry, and “creative nonfiction,” a mysterious form that no one could explain besides to say that it is not memoir-writing. This is particularly strange, because the modern biography is written much like a novel, with cinematic moments, symbolic through-lines, and even dialogue. Technically speaking, the writing process is almost identical whether you’re a “free” novelist or a biographer “tied” to the facts.[ii] Yet Woolf wrote this essay to claim what should be obvious: biographies can be art, just as much as anything else. So why the stigma?
Just about every human culture has made some form of biography, be it literary, musical, oral, visual, or media that we moderns might struggle to identify. But cultures both influence the mediums they use in their art and are also influenced by the mediums they use in their art. In other words, the famous marriage of “form and function” that makes art really work actually lies between its design and reception; and the reception of one work influences the design of the next. We are, in this way, tied inextricably into the work that we make. In the case of biography, this means that the way we chronicle lives shows how our culture understands what a life is, and then also informs how we interpret our own lives going forward.
Through much of human history, biographies looked very different than they do today. They focused much less on individual scenes, and more on the physical characteristics, notable achievements, and family heritage of an individual. Rather than making up plausible dialogue around a moment that we know happened, as many biographers do today, creative license might be used to deify characters, or hyperbolize their achievements; and of course, ancient biographies were almost never written about common people.
While to us, having the first third of a biography trace someone’s family history might seem off-topic, to many ancients it was predictive, or even prophecy, of the main character’s life. This is perhaps due to the simple fact that the world changed much more slowly before the industrial revolution, so that one might live and die in the exact same world as one’s ancestors and children: in this setting, the fact that we appear just to feed ourselves for a while and then die becomes much clearer, forcing biographers—and possibly individual people too—to spread out the meaning of their lives on much broader scales. Thinking of yourself as a product of your entire family history, your life is not just a few indistinguishable decades of struggle before death, but one more humble brick in a construct too great to see from a mortal perspective. Seeing the world this way as a spiritual and motivational necessity, one’s own personality then also becomes a product of that lineage, so that in talking about distant ancestors, a biographer is actually describing you. This is entirely different from how we view our lives now, how we see the world change massively in just one generation, how we believe each generation makes their own path in the world.
The trend towards explaining a life through lineage and prophecy is general, across almost all pre-industrial cultures. For a specific cultural example, we can turn to the Ancient Greek notion that beauty and ugliness were synonymous with good and evil, even to such an extent that the words kalos and kakos could be used interchangeably to mean good/beautiful or evil/ugly.[iii] In the famous story of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, an Ancient Greek reader would not be surprised that the hunchback is the one who betrays the Spartans, because to them his ugliness is synonymous with a wicked, treacherous nature. Thus, in describing the physical features of an individual, an ancient biographer might be discussing them just as directly as with their heritage. To us, this is separate from their character, but to them, it is both predictive and representative.
These are just a few examples of how biographies are representative both of their time and specific culture. But, just as much as biographies can tell us about these cultures, they open just as many questions. That’s because of the simple fact that we, too, live in a culture that deeply affects the ways we think, act, and make meaning in our lives. In the scandal of Rigoberta Menchu’s autobiography, in which she was lambasted by the global media for claiming things happened to her that really happened to others, we see a global culture of liberal, capitalist individualism projecting onto an indigenous Mayan culture that—like many indigenous cultures—was much more collective and community-oriented. When Menchu wrote her book, she was telling the story of her people, a community that understood the trauma of one as shared by many. When she wrote in the first-person, she wasn’t just trying to capture herself as an individual but something like the Mayan individual experience. It was the global press that failed to grasp the features of biography I’ve laid out above, and (mis)read her text through their own cultural lens, thinking it dishonest. Thus, even the notion of factual honesty is ultimately subject to the cultural understanding of meaning-making.
Of course, we know plenty about the Maya because there still are some. We know a good bit about Medieval biographies because we have so much material surrounding them. The further back you go, though, the more mysterious things become. Perhaps my favorite expression of the biographical impulse is in prehistoric cave paintings, in which a person drew their hand on the wall—but in many cases, they didn’t lather the hand in dye and print that, as most of us would, but rather placed their hand on the wall and then rubbed dye all around it, so the hand was in relief. Why do so many cave-paintings do this? What was it about that world, or those early communities, and the inchoate human minds that moved through them, that made it more obvious or natural to depict oneself in relief? In much prehistoric cave art, we see far more animals than humans, if any humans at all, and the drawings themselves are done in places almost entirely inaccessible. About these, I don’t even know how to draw up a clear question. We might wonder endlessly about how these early people saw themselves not as a dominant species, not yet, but as part of all of the others; we might wonder about the hand-in-relief, if it is a sort of signature, a story, a mark of presence. We like to think that these drawings done in such discreet places makes them religious, or spiritual, adding to their mystique, but this in turn only opens up more questions about why humans have always had this impulse to make representations and meditations on our world, and ourselves. Perhaps the hand is itself Woolf’s “suggestive fact,” immortalized long past everything it suggests.
Biographies from the global, post-industrial, Westernized culture that covers most of the world today are just as mysterious. When we construct the lives of real people in the same form as our characters, we’re showing how we understand life not as part of some greater narrative but as a sequence of scenes, of discreet moments, that we ourselves grasp and shape into lives, and then our biographers shape into narratives. I have no doubt this leads us to live more narratively as well, though trying to see exactly how is like trying to see how a fishbowl distorts an image from within it. Our cultures and societies are at once condensing beneath a global cultural economy and refracting through new media. The ‘bragging rites’ of hip-hop are one example of a countercultural biography, one that rejects the Christian notion of humility and (in the strangest comparison ever) echoes the notion from Graeco-Roman poetry that bragging is not just fine, but a means of attaining immortality. This crosscurrent then connects with social media, and the fact that, for the first time ever, almost every single person in our society is their own biographer. Just as an Ancient writer might tell their life story through family histories, omens, and great deeds, and post-industrial biographers told our lives like novels, we now tell our own lives as strings of vacation photos, birthday messages, and political propaganda. Would someone in the future look back on this and say that, because we go on so many vacations, we were never sad? Or would they glean something closer to the truth—that we perform ourselves so carefully it’s hard to let anyone in? Just because it’s happening all around us doesn’t mean it’s any easier to figure out.
One thing this discussion begins to tease apart—and something I can’t order coffee without talking about—is the difference between storytelling and storymaking. This is a distinction commonly used around something like fan fiction, in which first a story is told from a primary source, then it is enacted, enriched, and produced collaboratively by the fan community. But there are also cases where the order is flipped. In sports, players, coaches, and fans first do things that create what Woolf calls “the creative” or “fertile fact,” then later, storytellers come along and string those facts into a narrative.[iv] In some videogames, this wouldn’t really be possible, because the entire game happens within guiderails, like a ride at a theme park. But, as I’ve written extensively,[v],EVE Online is really more of a world with many games within it, and flimsy borders between those games. So what would it mean to write biographies in EVE?
We do have plenty of examples. On the one hand, we have the fictional biographies roleplayers make of their characters to live in the game. In roleplaying biographies, there is a reversal of the normal order of things, such that character traits are (usually)[vi] installed first and then used to inform actions, rather than a biographer retroactively deducing character traits from actions (as in a modern biography) or foreshadowing them with family history or physical features (as in many ancient biographies). That, on its own, is a new development in human media culture: possibly for the first time ever, we are able to divide ourselves into entirely new characters, and to play them in their own worlds.
A totally different example would be the very moving memorials (which is a type of biography) of Vile Rat/Sean Smith, a famous EVE player who was killed in the attacks on the US embassy in Benghazi. One of the most prominent obituaries leans heavily on the theme that he was the same person in-game as out of game, such as the phrase, “He had the vision and the understanding to see three steps ahead of everyone else – in the game, on the CSM, and when giving real-world advice.”[vii] How a community praises its dead is one of the clearest examples of what it values—yet, being the same person in and out of game seems contradictory to the practice of roleplaying biographies I just explained. So clearly, the way we biographize ourselves in roleplaying is broken when both the character and person behind it leave us, forcing biographers to decide whether to tell the story of their life in New Eden, on Earth, or both.
Clearly, there is no consensus about how biographies work in EVE. Perhaps roleplaying biographies and obituaries are just different genres—and indeed, if EVE is to be a world, it would make sense for that world to have a diversity of biographical cultures too. We might then also ask, are battle reports biographies? Are podcast interviews biographies? Are our characters’ killboards biographies? If so, who is making them?
And how much of your Earth-life should a biography include? Where’s the line between character and player? How do these biographies grow out of the culture that creates them—and is that culture EVE’s, the internet’s, or the modern world’s?
I quite blissfully have no idea. That’s why I’m devoting an entire section of this blog to an ongoing series of biographies in and around EVE, starting with my own, and then working off of interviews and collaboration with others. Hopefully, this will be a way to make sense—or even more beautiful confusion—out of these things together.
[i] Woolf, “Art of the Biography,” pg. 7
[ii] ibid. pg. 1
[iii] Thus our word “cacophony” could mean ugly noise or evil noise. This is one philosophical foundation for the idea in Medieval music that beauty and order was approaching God, such that one dissonant interval, the “Devil’s tritone” was actually outlawed as being literally evil.
[iv] This is, in most cases, a type of biography. In my opinion, this is also one of the most insidious effects of social media: it leads us to think of everything we do in our life as part of our own storytelling, how we cultivate our personal narratives online, making it so much harder to just live.
[v] Posts 7-9 dive into this as one aspect of Strategic vs Recreational PVP. Post 11 gets into some aspects of the game really being a world.
[vi] Many roleplayers will tell you that the beginning biography is itself just a set of guideline traits, but the rest is filled out by interactions in the world. Indeed, enacting the biography of your character can be the main event in roleplaying, whether designed ahead of time or not. But this is a whole other topic!