"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
For more information about the books of Nicholas Murray
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

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.

1 comment:

Kathleen Jones said...

Sorry to miss this, but Monday is one of my RLF days in Lancaster. From my point of view, as a biographer, the purpose of biography is to illuminate, to encourage people who may never have encountered the work to discover it, and to provide a jolly good read. My approach to the genre is creative - it should read beautifully, like a good novel, but should also be accurate. Although imaginative 'flights of fancy' properly signalled, such as in 'Daisy Bates in the Desert' by Julia Blackburn and Ackroyd's 'Dickens', can give insights into their subject that the plain facts never can. It will be interesting to hear what comes up in debate.
Hope it goes well!