The Life Force for Authors ; Mark Bostridge on the Highs and Lows of Biography, and His Choice of the Best
Bostridge, Mark, The Independent (London, England)
Autumn is a good season for biographers. During a hot and sultry summer, living with the dead can seem a distinctly unenviable occupation. Stuck in libraries, deciphering other people's literary detritus - everything from letters and diaries to bills and laundry lists - the biographer may understandably, and resentfully, feel like a ghostly revenant from someone else's past. Only with the onset of autumn does the process become somehow easier.
Autumn is also the best time to catch the biography industry at work. For it is in the immediate run-up to Christmas that publishers unleash their major biographies on the reading public. This year has been no different from any other.
Biography has been called "the British Disease", and it is certainly the literary form, both at popular and serious levels, that has spread and multiplied more than any other in Britain this century. Only a decade ago Michael Holroyd, whose treatment at the end of the 1960s of Lytton Strachey's homosexuality "without any artificial veils of decorum" established a permanent landmark in the history of modern biography, felt confident enough to argue that, in its curiosity about the human condition, biography would soon be replacing the modern novel. This plainly hasn't happened and today he would undoubtedly be more circumspect, but another distinguished, not to say adventurous practitioner, Richard Holmes, has more recently argued, almost as forcefully, that biography is "the most successful and intellectually stimulating literary form which has held a general readership in Britain since 1960. But," he added significantly, "this may not last".
Indeed it may not, and there are clear signs that change is on the way. The era of the blockbuster biography is over, and it is as yet unclear what will take its place. The object of this article is to celebrate biography in Britain this century, but first I want to denigrate some present practices and standards.
One is the tedious inclusiveness of many of today's biographies, whose writers operate under the misapprehension that the longer the book and the less selective the biographer is in his or her choice of material, the closer to the "truth" or "a definitive life" (that delusion of the marketplace) the book will come. Never mind that liveliness, narrative pace and fine writing are thereby automatically thrown out of the window. Another gripe is the continuing tendency for different publishers to commission different biographers to write on the same subjects. This year, for instance, has seen the publication of two biographies of Rudyard Kipling (Harry Ricketts' in January, followed nine months later by Andrew Lycett's); last year we had the third biography of George Eliot in as many years. The supply of marketable subjects may be running dry, but so too is the ability of editors to sniff out new and imaginative ways of resolving the shortage. Ask any writer: publishers have a habit of running scared whenever an author suggests anything that is in the remotest way innovative.
But then biography is quintessentially a conservative genre. Part of its popularity is founded on the welcome security provided by the customary plod from pedigree to grave. Biography has also generally lacked proper critical attention. Reviewers are often so concerned to recite the juiciest elements of the story that any consideration of the technical underpinning of the book is relegated to a cursory final paragraph.
Biographers have always yearned for a critical respectability that they feel has been unfairly withheld from them, while biography is often treated as the poor relation of the departments of history or literature. Consider, for example, the condescending way in which the historian Ian Kershaw dismisses biography in the preface to the first volume of his massive life of Hitler, published last year. He had hesitated over writing the book, he says, "because biography had never figured in my intellectual plans as something I might want to write," and furthermore, "if anything, I was somewhat critically disposed towards the genre". …