Today, in an act of biographer pride, I brought together all my biographies from around the house onto one shelf, displacing a random selection that had been occupying this hall shelf unhappily for a couple of years. I had more important things to do, but I don’t regret it at all. I’m going to look at this diverse collection of biographies many times each day as I pass and it’s going to inspire me. My arrangement of books – the double-stacked shelf of fiction in another prominent place – will no longer reinforce the hierarchy the literary community tries to impose.
Shifting from a novelist to a biographer has been like changing religions or at least from Protestant to Catholic. But the conversion has been to a persecuted minority sect. (No doubt I’m drawn to them, becoming as I did an Anabaptist in the early years of this century.) When fiction writers ask me what I’ve been writing and I update them on my progress on my biography, they’ll say (with all good intentions), ‘But have you done anything creative?’ I used to have this desperate need to insist I AM STILL CREATIVE. But I don’t care so much any more. It has not been good for my confidence to present excerpts from my biography to a creative-writing group; so few people seem to have much understanding of the genre of biography. They want it to have the qualities of fiction – thickly described scenes, interiority – while remaining oblivious to the virtues of biography. Life narratives woven out of the remains of the past, alert to the revelations, the mysteries, and gaps of the past with a sense of wonder lost in fiction’s pretense of full knowledge.
The practitioners within this minority group are too isolated. I’m glad to belong to Biographers’ International Organization and hear news from my tribe each month, but all of its action occurs overseas, mainly the US. I ponder, in my next acts of biographer pride, an Australian email list and a local gathering.
Footnote: as to the arrangement of the books, I chose, defiantly, to sort by biographer’s name rather than subject’s name. But I put all the hardbacks first. And then the books about biography. And then the paperbacks. And then the memoirs, as the half-siblings within the family of life writing.