Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Life Lines

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Life Lines

Article excerpt

Biography once considered a second-rate genre, has never been so fashionable. Kathryn Hughes welcomes the thaw in relations between life-writing and the academy, while Anne Chisholm debates the ethics of telling the truth


Biography has always been a particularly British habit (disease, if you believe some people, including Germaine Greer and AS Byatt). From Dr Johnson onwards, getting someone else's life down on paper has proved a popular and profitable activity for professional writers with no university post to fund them. Although biographers do pretty much the same thing as academics -- they go to libraries, find stuff out, and then publish books about it -- the two camps have always kept themselves stiffly to themselves, held apart by a barely disguised tangle of envy, suspicion and defensive superiority.

Both Greer and Byatt are originally academics, and their dislike of biography borders on loathing. Greer, who found herself dissected in a particularly queasy biography back in the 1980s, sees the genre as essentially second-rate, the last refuge of hack writers who can't come up with their own plots. Biographers, to her, are scavenging dung beetles crawling over the remains of bigger, better lives. Byatt, who must dread the biography that will surely come (perhaps a joint one with her sister Margaret Drabble?) worries more about the way literary biography turns people away from the dark meat of literature towards the sliced white bread of gossip. In Byatt's worst-case scenario, reading about George Eliot's life becomes a junk substitute for people who are too lazy or stupid to tackle Middlemarch.

For most academics, though, the wariness towards biography has been less heatedly personal (they are, after all, unlikely ever to be the subject of one) and more coldly calculated. With a few notable exceptions, such as Hermione Lee and the late Richard Ellmann, they have kept aloof, arguing that there are fundamental intellectual problems with the form itself. Postwar developments in the research and writing of history and literary criticism, the two university disciplines that rub up hardest against biography, left the genre seeming not so much irrelevant as downright wrong. In history departments, it was increasingly the mass, the group, the trend that mattered. Corn prices, demographic shifts and nuclear weapons were the forces that powered the human story forward, rather than the doings of individual people. Against this intellectual backdrop, biography, with its insistence on the importance of the individual, started to resemble one of those "Great Men and Women of History" annuals that ten-year-olds u sed to get for Christmas.

In English departments, the cultural currents were even more extreme, and biography's intellectual isolation consequently greater. In the 1970s, a revolution in literary theory proclaimed "the death of the author" and insisted on turning books into "texts", to be read without any reference to the writer's intentions. There were many different theoretical underpinnings, but the point was that the text became a kind of field force, a shifting example of the different social and intellectual pressures that had produced it, rather than the brainchild of one particular man or woman. Knowing that the young Charles Dickens spent time in a blacking factory could not possibly tell you anything about how to read David Copperfield. Indeed, it got in the way.

In return, biographers have become accustomed to protesting -- perhaps a tad too much -- that they don't care about their outsider status. In fact, they love the way it licenses them as perpetual amateurs, genuine lovers of their subject. Instead of being obliged to drudge away in one tiny subject field for 30 years, they revel in their freedom to roam through other people's patches. And certainly it was the case that working on a biography of George Eliot for five years allowed me, a historian by training, to become a literary critic. …

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