Friday, 6 May 2011
What is Biography For?
Once upon a time certain literary critics argued that biography was superfluous at best, pernicious at worst, because it encouraged us to concentrate on gossipy trivia instead of focussing on that sacred space: The Text. Nothing dates quite so quickly as fashions in criticism and "the New Critics" are no longer new and the "doctrine of impersonality" is probably equally covered in dust in some lit. crit. mausoleum and many subsequent hot tickets are now being heavily discounted. Quite what the current status of biography is in the austere world of criticism I am not sure but on Monday, if you happen to be in London, fellow biographer, Phil Baker, and I will be discussing "The Perils of Biography". We both think that it has a future and a role but I still have a lot of respect for Proust's view in Contre Sainte-Beuve that, contrary to Sainte-Beuve (a critic who believed that you couldn't say anything useful about a writer unless you knew all about their life, preferably from personal acquaintance) the writer was far more than the bundle of atoms who sat down for breakfast. The writer was, as Proust put it, "l'autre moi", the "other me", and his personal foibles had nothing to do with the writer who wrote those books. A striking irony, of course, given the deep personal sources of Proust's writing. But I think we get his point. Come along on Monday and see if we manage to refer to him.