p u l p i t a dam s i s man
Crisis? What Crisis?
Biography is a genre in crisis, according to Michael Holroyd, one of the most respected biographers of modern times. The ‘golden age’ of biography has come and gone. Literary biography in particular is ‘tremendously out of fashion’.
Similar views are frequently heard in the book trade nowadays. Sales forecasts are lower than they were, and advances correspondingly smaller. Professional biographers are finding life hard. Not long ago it was reported that Victoria Glendinning, the author of several highly praised literary lives (at least one of which was a bestseller), was finding it difficult to obtain a commission for her latest project. Apparently the public no longer wants to read full-scale biographies; according to one publisher-turned-agent, ‘readers are bored by the form’.
Well, I disagree. Biography seems to me to be remarkably resilient. The best biographies being published now are as good as any that appeared in the past – and the worst just as bad. Whenever I hear a lament for the passing of a golden age, I suspect that the lamenter – even the ever-youthful Michael Holroyd – is feeling his age.
There are still plenty of people who want to read substantial, well-written and well-researched biographies. Admittedly a high proportion of them belong to that demographic that so infuriates marketing men: the Radio 4 audience of the comfortably off over-fifties. But there are just as many such people as ever there were; according to the statisticians there may be even more of them – perhaps I should say of us – in the future.
To argue that biography has gone ‘out of fashion’ doesn’t stand up. How can the lives of our fellow human beings ever be something to tire of?
If sales have diminished, that is, at least in part, a result of lower expectations. Nowadays, when publishers pay for bookshop space, the success of a book is to a large extent predetermined. So the assumptions on which publishers work are increasingly important. I worked in publishing for more than twenty years before I became a full-time writer, and came to realise that the book business, like the film business, is an industry in which, as William Goldman famously said, ‘nobody knows anything’. The basis for publishers’ pronouncements is often no more scientific than those of court astrologers, or the augurs of antiquity who examined the entrails of sacrificed animals. It is important to counter such hocus-pocus with rational argument whenever possible. For instance, the almost identical sales pattern of two comparable books, my own biographies of the rival historians A J P Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper, one published in 1994 and the other in 2010, suggests that the market has not significantly changed over this period.
The new mantra is that biography has to be ‘different ’ to succeed. A few weeks ago The Sunday Times reviewed the paperback edition of my Trevor-Roper book as an ‘unashamedly traditional biography’; it ’s almost as if I am expected to apologise for producing a straightforward cradle-to-grave life. In trying to find a line for a story, journalists often divide biographers into opposing camps of traditional and experimental, suggesting that there can be no meeting of minds between the conventional and the avant-garde. As a writer of both kinds of books, I feel that this distinction is spurious. The idea that there is a conflict between them may make good copy, but it doesn’t make good sense. It is perfectly possible, indeed quite likely, that the same reader will enjoy, say, Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes and Claire Tomalin’s new biography of Charles Dickens.
Last month I was one of a panel of four biographers discussing ‘The Future of Biography’ at the first Soho Literary Festival. My fellow panellists exemplify the diversity of modern life-writing: Jane Ridley, who teaches biography as well as being a biographer herself; Jeremy Lewis, who has written both biographies and several volumes of memoirs; and Alexander Masters, a biographical pioneer, whose first book, Stuart: A Life Backwards, told the story – backwards – of a homeless man. Despite the wide differences between the books we have written, we found much in common. In particular, we all felt strongly that biographies must be entertaining if they are to pay their way. Far too often, biographers (especially academic biographers) seem to assume that reading should be a duty rather than a pleasure.
If publishers have lost money on high-profile books, this is not so much because of a slump in demand for biography but because they have paid ludicrously large sums for a few prestigious projects in the past. We are suffering the hangover from previous indulgences. The sloppiness of publishers – some, not all – is in large part responsible for the current malaise. Why do they keep commissioning biographies of the same tired subjects? This is not just a matter of eschewing big names in favour of the lesser-known. Sometimes there is a real justification for a fresh biography of a major figure, even if he or she has been much written about before (for example, the discovery of his notebooks meant that there was a real need for a new biography of Coleridge, superbly supplied by Richard Holmes). But all too often there is little new to say, and the result is pointless: a bloated book that repeats everything anybody has ever written before about the subject, and then tries to find something to add – more and more about less and less.
Does any of this matter? I think that it does. Biography is too important to be left to tenured academics or rich dilettantes with time on their hands. At its best it adopts the standards of historical truth used in non-fiction to provide the insights into the human condition found in fiction. In essence, biography is an attempt by one human to enter into the life of another, and in doing so, it teaches us about life itself.
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