The lure of 'lies'

Writing the Lives of Writers
March 19, 1999

In 1996 an astonishing 3,292 biographies were commissioned by publishers in Britain. It seems surprising, therefore, that relatively little academic study has been devoted to the genre of literary biography. This book, a collection of essays gleaned from a 1995 conference of scholars and biographers on the subject, is a partial attempt to redress the balance.

The central theme is the relationship between the biographer and his subject. From a practical and an ethical point of view the subject can never really be known. But equally problematic are other relationships in the biographical process, such as those between the writer's life and his work, and between the biographer and the reader - writing a biography is evidently a task fraught with difficulties.

It will come as no surprise that many of the essays are intensely critical of the trend for quick-buck biographies by journalists who sacrifice research and impartiality in favour of narrative and largely speculative revelation. Indeed, many of today's biographical stars, such as Peter Ackroyd or Andrew Motion, receive a critical drubbing, even when they do provide the requisite list of footnotes.

Having said this, a cogent defence of the quasi-imaginative approach, by which the life can be interpreted through the work, is represented in the form of two essays by distinguished practitioners of the art, Hermione Lee and Ray Monk. Others maintain that it is possible for a biography to "tell the truth'', have a readable narrative and represent something of the writer's inner personality.

Nevertheless, many writers have fought to protect their privacy over the years. One of the most interesting aspects of the debate is the degree to which a range of writers, from George Eliot to Henry James have resisted biography because they feared misrepresentation. Freud said: "Anyone turning biographer has committed himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to flattery, and even to hiding his own lack of understanding: for biographical truth is not to be had."

Yet in the case of Henry James, the paradox of the writer's (and biographer's) dilemma is amply illustrated. While James opposed the idea of biography, and attacked it in his stories, as Richard Salmon explains, he was well aware that "resistance will only serve to inflame, rather than curtail, the impulse of enquiry'', and that his career substantially profited from it.

This is just one of many fascinating conundrums in the book. Wide though its scope is, more space might have been devoted to the question of why biography is so popular. Kathryn Hughes, who does not feature here, recently wrote: "Biography now does the job which the novel used to do. It offers a stable world of cause and effect in which character works as destiny.'' One is left wondering why academia has not addressed the subject more often.

Daniel Britten is a freelance reviewer and essayist.

Writing the Lives of Writers

Editor - Warwick Gould and Thomas F. Staley
ISBN - 0 333 68461 3
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £47.50
Pages - 328

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