How Close Is Too Close for Biographer and Subject?

In the wake of the General Petraeus scandal–after he resigned as the director of the CIA because he had an affair with his biographer–The New York Times looks at the uniquely award relationship between scribe and subject. So, how close is too close?

Well, it’s a complex question. On the one hand, the biographers needs to establish trust and build a relationship. On the other hand, there needs to be journalistic distance so that the biographer can still be free to stab a knife in the back of the subject–or at least point out some flaws.

“The challenge of writing a biography about a person who is still alive is that an author must first establish trust and a comfort level with a subject, to get access and a free flow of information,” explains the Times. “But the biographer is still expected to evaluate and expose unsparingly.”

How about sex with your subject? That seems like a logical place to draw the line.

“I suppose it ultimately depends on the book,” said Stephen Rubin, the president of Henry Holt, told the Times. “Though I would prefer if they didn’t have sex, because you lose a sense of perspective objectivity when you are romantically linked.”

Okay, so just try not to have sex with the person you are writing about. But if the biographer does feel so compelled, then by all means, think carefully about the title of said biography. Because if it becomes public knowledge that you are sleeping with the subject of your biography, do you really want the title to be All In: The Education of General David Petraeus? Thatis just asking for it.