Unauthorized, But Not Untrue: the real story of a biographer in a celebrity culture of public denials, media timidity, and legal threats.

Author:Kelley, Kitty
Position:Essay
 
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Shortly after my book Oprah: A Biography was published last April, one of Oprah Winfrey's open-minded fans wrote to her website saying she wanted to read the book Oprah's message-board moderator hurled a thunderbolt in response: "This book is an unauthorized biography." The word unauthorized clanged on the screen like a burglar alarm. Suddenly I heard the rumble of thousands of Oprah book buyers charging out of Barnes & Noble-- empty-handed.

Days before this exchange, I had felt the chill of media disdain when my publisher began booking my promotion tour. Larry King barred the door to his CNN talk show because, he said, he didn't want to offend Oprah. Barbara Walters did the same thing, proclaiming on The View that the only reason people wrote unauthorized biographies was to dig "dirt." There was no room for me at Charlie Rose's roundtable and no comfy seat next to David Letterman. The late-night comic had recently reconciled with Oprah after a 16-year rift and did not want to risk another. On my 10-city tour I made few, if any, appearances on ABC-owned-and-operated stations because most of the stations that broadcast The Oprah Winfrey Show are owned by ABC or its affiliates. No one wanted to displease the diva of daytime television. Although they had not read the book prior to publication, they assumed, given the author and the subject, that my unauthorized biography would be a blistering takedown of a beloved icon.

The reviews ranged from rocks (The New York Times) to raves (The Los Angeles Times). My publisher, Crown Books, aimed for sales from the fan base fondly known as "Opraholics" and "Winfreaks," but once Herself publicly denounced the book as "a so-called biography," the fan base dwindled, and to date the book has yet to sell 300,000 copies (a disappointing figure for an author paid to sell millions). It's true that traditional publishing is getting slammed by the Internet and can no longer guarantee commercial success to writers, even those who, as I did, hit number one on The New York Times best-seller list and on Amazon.com. Sadly, the demand for books has decreased in the last 10 years, which may or may not explain why the United States has fallen from number one to number 12 among developed nations in the percentage of college graduates.

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Priced at $30, my book was too expensive to flourish in a sour economy, especially in the target audience of Oprah fans, who, demographics show, are low- and middle-income women with little disposable income. But there was more at play than economics. Even among Oprah fans there is a bit of Oprah fatigue, following 25 years of her appearing on the air five days a week. Some people feel they know all there is to know about their idol, and whatever else there may be to learn they will read in the weekly tabloids at the grocery store. Others want the myth and do not want to be disillusioned by an unauthorized biography. In today's celebrity culture, that word unauthorized carries immense freight. It signals an independent appraisal that will reveal more than floss, and some people cannot accept their idols with flaws. Instead, they need the illusions they see on the screen or the fantasies they read. To show anything less makes them feel shortchanged, even conned.

Journalists are just as susceptible to the power of celebrity as the adoring housewives who watch Oprah. Lara Logan, CBS News chief foreign correspondent and a contributor to 60 Minutes, appeared a few months ago with Howard Kurtz on CNN'S Reliable Sources. She castigated Michael Hastings for his Rolling Stone article that led to the firing of General Stanley McChrystal. When Kurtz asked her if there is an "unspoken agreement that you're not going to embarrass [the troops] by reporting insults and banter" Logan said, "Yes, absolutely. There is an element of trust."

Hastings said that reporters like Logan do not report negative stories about their subjects in order to assure continued access. No reporter would admit to tilting a story toward favorable coverage to keep entree, but they do, and that is one of the dirty little secrets of journalism today.

The kickback I got from many of the media mandarins who refused to talk with me, and who had themselves been subjects of unauthorized biographies, reflects the fear and loathing of the genre.

Still, I believe that the best way to tell a life story is from the outside looking in, and so I choose to write with my nose pressed against the window rather than kneel inside for spoon-feedings. Most of the great biographies are written about people who are dead, and thus the biographies are unauthorized. Championing the independent or unauthorized biography might sound like a high-minded defense for a low-level pursuit, but I do not relish living in a world where information is authorized, sanitized, and homogenized. I read banned books, I applaud whistleblowers, and I reject any suppression by church or state. To me, the unauthorized biography, which requires a combination of scholarly research and investigative reporting, is best directed at those figures, still alive and able to defend themselves, who exercise power over our lives. So I only pursue the kings (and queens) of the jungle.

............ FOR THE LAST THREE DECADES I've chosen to write biographies of other icons, also without their cooperation and independent of their demands and dictates. These people are not merely celebrities, but titans of society who have affected us as individuals, influenced our society, and left an imprint on our culture. With each biography, the challenge has been to answer the question John F. Kennedy posed in Benjamin Bradlee's book Conversations with Kennedy: "What makes journalism so fascinating and biography so interesting [is] the struggle to answer that single question: 'What's he like?'" In writing about contemporary figures, I've found that the unauthorized biography avoids the pureed truths of revisionist history, which is the pitfall of authorized biography. Without being beholden to the subject, the unauthorized biographer is better able to penetrate the manufactured public image, which is crucial. For, to quote President Kennedy again, "The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie--deliberate, contrived and dishonest--but the myth-- persistent, persuasive and unrealistic."

Even...

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