The JOBS movie and other problems with biographies

Ashton Kutcher in Jobs
Only Ashton Kutcher can make nerdiness look oh-so-sexy. (Photo from Cult of Mac)

Poor Steve Jobs (both the late Apple visionary and the character played by Ashton Kutcher). The JOBS movie has already taken plenty of hits in the press before it even came out. I suspect that many of the opinions depend on whether the person loves or hates Apple, Steve Jobs, Ashton Kutcher, or any combination of them.

The real problem is that biographies are hard to write. Here are the reasons why (and things to avoid if you’re writing a biography).

Biographies Depend on How the Writer Feels about the Subject

Was Steve Jobs a visionary or egotist? Was he brilliant or did he rip off the ideas of others? Was he a hero or a scumbag? He (like everyone else) was a combination of good and bad. But the story that comes out depends on how the author feels about that person.

All of us are susceptible to bias. If we believe something is true, we look for evidence that proves it. The stronger our feelings are towards that person, the harder it is to resists those biases. The challenge for the biographer is how to maintain passion for the subject while still looking at it objectively.

Biographies Must Leave Out Critical Details

Is it possible to include all of the details of a person’s life? Certainly not in a two-hour biopic. It isn’t even possible in a more comprehensive biography like Walter Isaacson’s. But in omitting details, is the author omitting something important?

For example, ending JOBS with the release of the iPod in 2001 may make for a triumphant conclusion, but the events in Steve Jobs’ life after 2001 shaped the image of him and his company that we have today. The release of the iPhone in 2007 and iPad in 2010 turned Apple from being a cool tech company to the industry giant we know today. Because of Steve Jobs’ struggle with pancreatic cancer along with his unforgettable Stanford commencement speech, he is seen as a courageous visionary and not just another tech CEO.

Biographers can’t include everything, but they have to make sure that they include details that are crucial in understanding a person.

Biographies Will Slight Someone

Biographers shouldn’t expect everyone to like their book. There will be those who will feel slighted, or feel they weren’t being treated accurately or fairly. Some will harbor grudges towards the subject and feel that he or she doesn’t deserve a biography. This is certainly the case in JOBS.

Since biographers will wind up ticking someone off, they need to make sure that they do it because it’s the truth. Here is why objectivity and honesty is so important. If biographers are going to show someone in a not-so-favorable light, they must do the research and gather enough evidence to back their case. They should also include people who have grudges in their research. Why do these people have axes to grind? A person’s enemies can provide some valuable insights.

The Keys to a Good Biography

The keys to a good biography are objectivity and thoroughness. Biographers must resist bias and use caution in selecting which details to include or omit. Accuracy and objectivity is especially important in biography because someone will likely take offense no matter what stand the author takes about a person.

How well did JOBS do in those areas? We’ll have to watch it and find out.