"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Monday, 30 June 2008

Biography, again.

Sorry to return again to the subject of literary biography but there was a long article in the Guardian book section on Saturday by Kathryn Hughes about the fortunes of literary biography. She seemed to be saying (what many of us literary biographers have been saying for some time) that literary biography is entering into choppy waters. She made the surprising claim that such biographies were still holding up in sales which is certainly not my reading of the situation and most publishers and agents, I think, would now agree that literary biography - which formerly enjoyed very high prestige, is in the doldrums and not smiled upon by the sales and marketing people who drive contemporary publishing. Hughes spoke to several fashionable metropolitan names in the biography field who said everything in the garden was lovely which, for them, I am sure it is, but in the more bleak and windswept parts of Grub Street it is a different story. Many publishers simply will not commission a new literary biography of a classic writer. Does this matter? If everyone has been 'done' then probably not. Hughes, associating herself with the above Fashionable Names, claimed that many recent offerings had not been very good (naming no names). I am not sure about this but where I really differ from her is in her argument that biography is some kind of special calling and not something any good writer can turn her or his hand to. I did, however, like her admission that on her "life-writing" course (teaching people to write biography just now is a bit like teaching people to drive a pony and trap) she recommends Lytton Strachey. His revolutionary approach just after the First World War involved breaking with the tombstone-like "Life and Letters" two volume literary lives that were the norm at that time in order to be short, esssayistic, sharp and iconoclastic. This was a wonderful tonic. We need it again.

In the end the article pointed to what I see as an optimistic future. The wind will blow around the establishment biographers but the field may become open to writers who do it differently, taking an unconventional angle, and rejecting the standard cradle-to-grave life. New forms, new ways of discussing the writing life, are welcome. It goes without saying, however, that the work remains the thing and the only book about a writer worth reading is the one that sends you scurrying back to the texts.

1 comment:

Lloyd Mintern said...

Can we expect to see in 2009 a number of literary biographies of Edgar Allan Poe, being that it is Poe's 200th birthday? I heard of one such being prepared that is based on a collection of Poe artifacts and manuscripts held at Cornell University--the collection of Susan Tane.