I was underwhelmed by Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer; it wasn’t as profound as I hoped or as engaging. It was fine, just not great. But I was taken with her discussion of the problem for the journalist / nonfiction novelist – or, I would add, perhaps biographer – of needing to select a subject who is ‘a ready made literary figure’. She argues that journalist McGinniss chose a subject in murderer Jeffrey MacDonald who just wasn’t interesting enough:Continue reading
James Atlas The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale (Scribner, 2017, 400pp)
I’m drawn to biography’s sweet melancholy about mortality and recovering fragments of the past. Biographer James Atlas’s excellent memoir The Shadow in the Garden captures the mood I feel about biography. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
Sue at Whispering Gums has given a great overview of David Marr’s Seymour lecture, “Here I stand”. He focused on the biographer’s craft, and he said so many things of great relevance to me, but I’ll just engage this comment:
Marr spent four years (I think) on the project, meeting with [Patrick] White, visiting places he’d been, meeting people he knew, and so on, but he is not in the book. Editors today, he said, would “tell me to get in there”, to write of his adventures in research. He described this style as “quest biographies”, and he doesn’t (generally) like them. They “inflict their homework on readers”
I love biographical quests; they’re how I came to biography. For my Master’s thesis , I wrote a biographical quest novel (“The Remains”) and a dissertation on aspects of the genre, including the influence of its non-fiction counterparts. From AJA Symons Quest for Corvo to Laura Sewell Matter’s “Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist” and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – and not forgetting Martin Edmonds Dark Night: Walking with McCahon, which I’ve just started – I’ve encountered some superb non-fiction biographical quests. Continue reading
This post, I warn you, is a response to an academic journal article. If you find it boring or incomprehensible, please do come again another time – you’re likely to encounter something of broader appeal.
Philip Holden’s “Literary Biography as a Critical Form” Biography 37.4 (Fall 2014) is a lifeline thrown out to literary biography, the “Cinderella” of literary studies. Holden takes as his point of departure Michael Benton’s monograph Literary Biography: An Introduction (2009). In my reading of Benton’s work (which I found an excellent account of the state of the genre and challenges and issues within it for the biographer and reader), he is content to retain literary biography’s estrangement – or at least distinctiveness – from literary theory and literary criticism and proceed with giving an account of the genre on its own terms. Holden, in contrast, wants to achieve a rapprochement. Continue reading
The Imitation Game adapts a 768 page biography, Andrew Hodge’s Alan Turing: The Enigma (1983). It does it very well, focusing on the years Turing spent at Bletchley Park in World War Two breaking the German Enigma code but intertwining it with a past and future strand – his doomed love for a fellow-boarder, Christopher, as a young teenager; and his arrest for indecency in the 1950s. In two hours we gain some sense of the span of his life, and the film succeeds as both a thrilling war drama and a biopic. Lytton Strachey would approve. When he set out to change biography, he believed that biography could be art by virtue of selection, the artfully arranged, representative scenes of a life. Today, “biopics” (think Iron Lady, Walk the Line) attempt this, and biographies, seeking to be comprehensive, generally do not.
Biopics have much to offer the biographer in methodological possibility. Surely there are other readers like me who want to read biography for interest, but not generally the comprehensive brick. We should look to biopics for inspiration for a form of biography which is not simply a condensed brick, but a more Stracheyean form. Perhaps a central drama in a subject’s life, intertwined with subplots from past and future points. There would be a suggestion of the whole, without the detail of the whole. It would be the length of a shortish novel, two to three hundred pages. It need not take on the biopic’s creative sins – the amalgamated characters, the invented dialogue – but rely on the best tradition of biographical storytelling without being shackled by comprehensiveness. It would not replace the comprehensive biography, which needs to be written, but it would supplement it so well, perhaps revitalise biography as a readers’ genre and as an art form.
(I say this, and yet my first comment coming out of the cinema was that there was so much to Imitation Game that really it required a long-form drama, a series of ten to twenty hours. The problem of scope and detail is a significant one in biography. Yet perhaps my point stands, because far more detail fits within a two hundred page book than a two hour film – it could be enough to tell the kind of representative story I have in mind.)
Speaking of the biopics’ “creative sins”, it’s actually a curious thing that biographies are adapted as biopics rather than documentaries. Biographies are not generally written in scenes (although this is something I want to attempt as much as possible, in a modified way), and biographers who invent dialogue are often heavily criticised. Biopics are given far more leeway – it’s usually acceptable to amalgamate characters or create them and to simplify chronology and turning points. Of course, there’s still pushback, with many viewers and critics expecting a high degree of historical accuracy; Imitation Game’s Wikipedia article currently has a lengthy section dedicated to perceived inaccuracies. A documentary would actually recreate the approach of a biography much more closely on film – a narrator takes the place of the author. Actors read portions of documents. Re-enactments have a certain tenuousness to them – it’s a mood or a setting rather than a full scene. Interviews are used. These conventions are able to convey the limits of the historical record, like biography does.
My research quest this week has been to try to better explain the shift from respectful, white-washed biographies of the Victorian-era to the biographical preoccupation by the late-twentieth century with uncovering secrets. (It’s a question I have already addressed in my MA thesis, but I’m revisiting it as I revise a section of the thesis for publication.) As an example, Charles Dickens’ original 1870s biography by his friend John Forster did not mention Dickens’ long affair with the actor, Nelly Ternan. The secret was long out when the definitive story of Nelly was written in the 1990s, Claire Tomalin’s Invisible Woman. For some time now, the reading public has expected biographies to “tell the truth” about a person’s life, and not leave secrets out. My essay connects this shift to the rise of biographical quest fiction, such as A. S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance (1990).
Not that much has been written on the history of biography. Those accounts which do trace its development over the twentieth century inevitably point to New Biography as the turning point – the triumvirate of Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, and Harold Nicholson. Strachey’s Eminent Victorians appeared a few months before Armistice in 1918 and set about debunking the heroes of the Victorian age, and forging a new style of biography. While most scholars are perhaps too quick to label most biography since as post-Stracheyean, Robert Skidelsky (1988) makes a compelling contrarian case that contemporary biography does not resemble Strachey’s project at all. “What chiefly distinguishes the contemporary from the Victorian biography (apart from its greater professionalism) is its greater degree of explicitness about private life and its greater psychological penetration; neither of which, I think, were important aspects of Strachey’s original programme.” (9) Strachey himself wrote only from published sources, avoiding the problems of dealing with literary estates or the hard work of research. He called for brevity in biography, a few telling incidents, not the numbing accumulation of detail. A biography without archival research and of only a hundred or two hundred pages is not a common sight in today’s literary landscape. If Skidelsky is right, who can we look to in order to explain the biographical turn?
Freud is one candidate, but he was not someone for unearthing secret papers from the archives either. Long before The Da Vinci Code was Freud’s biography of Da Vinci, and it did not involve lost letters or diaries, but Freud re-intrepreting Da Vinci’s dreams and character. However, the mainstreaming of Freudian thought, of concepts like repression, is surely another piece of the puzzle.
- The rise of celebrity culture, and the expectation that we will know their private lives. The gossip pages spill over into even serious biographies.
- Related to this, Skidelsky talks of a shift in motivation for writing biography – “not because they achieved great or unusual things, but because they led interesting or unusual lives.” (13).
- A melding of Strachey’s interest in debunking heroes and other developments in culture and biography – the professionalisation (and increasing scholarliness) of biography; a return to the long biographies of the nineteenth century after a flirtation with Strachey’s brevity; the general tendency toward revisionism and suspicion.
It’s a pity Skidelsky pulled down Strachey as the model for contemporary biography so effectively without naming a replacement. But this is where I come in. Perhaps a clearer answer will emerge.