A forum for the discussion of biography in the 21st century.

Report from Edinburgh

November 11th, 2011 | Posted by Ray Monk in Discussion - (0 Comments)

A bit delayed, I’m afraid, because I’ve been away, but here, better late than never, is a report of our first symposium in Edinburgh.

Led by Frank Cogliani, our Edinburgh hosts did us proud, providing us with a well-equipped lecture room (complete with microphone to record discussions for future podcasts), a lovely room in which to have coffee and some very good sandwiches for lunch. The first paper of the symposium was a superb historical account by Max Saunders of the challenges to biography presented by modernism. With the rich literary and historical scholarship at his disposal, Max was able to show that these challenges echoed and recapitulated ideas that had been expressed several decades before the modernist movement began. From this historical perspective, Max presented a reassuringly optimistic assessment of the current situation, arguing that, despite the attacks upon it by modernists, postmodernists and deconstructionists, biography was in fact gaining respectability in the academy.

More defence of the genre came from June Hannam, whose discussion of “Biography, Feminism and History” was extraordinarily wide-ranging. One of the many themes June dealt with was the idea that feminist biography was a contradiction in terms, an idea she countered with the thought that biography is capable of treating its subjects, not simply as individuals but also as exemplifications of social, political and cultural trends. Though her topic was, on the face of it, far removed from the issues discussed by Max Saunders, there were significant and intriguing areas of overlap, particularly when June came to consider the threats to feminism presented by postmodernism.

Geoffrey Cantor, in his extremely interesting and well-researched discussion of “Psychobiography and Science,” provided further areas of overlap, while at the same time taking the discussion into new territory. With regard to the understanding of science, Geoffrey argued, the “sociological turn” of the 1980s – which treated science as a “social construct” – needed to be counter-balanced by a long overdue “psychological turn.” In other words, a full understanding of the history and development of science requires some insight into the “inner self” of scientists. It needs, in other words, biography. But the biography it needs, Geoffrey insisted, should be armed with the insights of psychology. In the question period that followed, Geoffrey conceded that the insights required might equally be acquired from poetry or fiction; what was essential was some way of understanding people.

After the lunch break, Liz Stanley delivered a paper with the dauntingly long title: “Ex Biographie semper aliquid: Olive Schreiner, ‘A Rational South African,’ her letters, her essays, her theorizing, her fictions, her politics, her life.” In it, she gave a detailed account of the on-going project to edit Olive Schreiner’s letters, while also developing a new approach to the theory of biography, a genre which, she insisted, was “under-theorized.” The bold metaphysical claims she made in developing and defending her theory of biography will no doubt provide the fuel for much future debate, but the case for treating Olive Schreiner as a subject worthy of detailed and exhaustive biographical research was incontestable.

The final paper was a tour de force: Kathryn Hughes on “Biography and the Reality Principle.” Supporting her argument with a delightful Powerpoint presentation, Kathryn drew attention to a glaring and yet neglected tension in modern cultural life between, on the one hand, the tendency to insist that novels, plays, movies etc. be based on real events, and, on the other, the tendency, on the part of publishers and the reading public, to treat footnotes, references and supporting documentation as superfluous in works of biography and history. At one and the same time, it seems, we want our fiction to be “real,” but are happy to treat our non-fiction as if it were imaginary. Kathryn did not have an explanation for this curious dichotomy, but she explored it with an array of fascinating examples.

The symposium ended with a group discussion dominated by questions concerning biographical practice. Is it ever right to conceal information in order to protect the reputations of our subjects? How much personal information is it right for biographers to give? How far, for example, should we explore the sexual lives of our subjects? Is it possible to write a good biography of a person one dislikes?

In December we will meet again, this time at Nottingham, where we will address a different set of “challenges to biography,” namely those presented by the rapid changes taking place in technology, in publishing and in the economy. In the meantime, look out for the texts of the Edinburgh papers, which we hope to have up on this website soon, and also the podcasts of the discussions.

Following on from Ray Monk’s summary of the Edinburgh Symposium, here are podcasts of the individual presentations and follow up discussion [regrettably the final, overall discussion was not recorded as a consequence of technical malfunction]. No doubt contributors’ remarks will prompt further discussion on this site…

Ray Monk – Introduction

Max Saunders – Biography and Modernism

June Hannam – Biography, Feminism, and History

Geoffrey Cantor – Psychobiography and Science

Liz Stanley – Ex Africa…

Kathryn Hughes – Biography and the Reality Principle

The Political Studies Association’s ‘Innovation in Teaching Award’ for 2011has been awarded to the course on ‘Political Biography’ that Professor Alex Danchev teaches with Honorary Professor Ion Trewin at the University of Nottingham. With Ion as the current Literary Director of the Man Booker Prize and a former Editor-in-Chief of Weidenfeld and Nicolson, this partnership of academia and publishing is of course exactly what the research network is seeking to promote.

‘Political Biography’ is a course that embraces long as well as short forms (obituaries, Dictionary of National Biography entries), ranging from memoirs, through diaries, to official or unauthorised lives of the great and good. Alex and Ion’s teaching has been highlighted in the national and educational press as a wholly new approach to teaching Politics, witness the creative writing element – a forward obituary of Tony Blair. The course first attracted attention two years ago when Alex and Ion received a Dearing Award for Learning and Teaching.

Alex and Ion will receive their award at the PSA’s annual prize-giving in Church House, Westminster, on 29 November – a televised occasion, with Jon Snow as compere.

David Low is perhaps unique as a cartoonist in boasting an impressive autobiography and biography (Colin Seymour-Ure and Jim Schoff, David Low, Secker & Warburg, 1985), but
other key artists working for the British press have received similarly forensic attention, for example, Vicky and Will Dyson. E-mailing from the West Coast, Professor Peter Mellini points out that the large body of primary and secondary material on Punch magazine he gave to the Cartoon Study Centre at the University of Kent is invaluable for biographers and cultural historians attracted to cartoon and caricature.

Today’s Guardian carries the following report from Charlotte Higgins on Michael Holroyd’s qualified lament for the passing of an ostensible golden age of biography writing. I’m wholly unconvinced by his remarks re academia, and this seems precisely the sort of claim worthy of discussion within the Network:

Biography is a genre in crisis, according to perhaps Britain’s best-known biographer, the author of highly acclaimed works on Lytton Strachey, Augustus John and George Bernard Shaw.

Speaking at the Edinburgh international book festival, Michael Holroyd said: “The book with a single name on the title page is becoming less attractive to readers. A single name, rather unfairly, suggests you are being exclusive. And the worst word you can use is ‘literary’. If you are writing a literary biography you have to try to hide the fact because it’s so tremendously out of fashion: that’s the message we have been getting from Waterstone’s, at least before their recent takeover.

“I have a nostalgia for visiting private houses to find letters and journals and to root around in the attic,” he said.

“But the fact that a lot of material now is on the computer takes the romance out of it, and now it’s about examining what lies behind the delete button – the horror.”

Biography’s golden age, said Holroyd, came in the late 20th century, with works such as the first volume of George Painter’s study of Proust, which appeared in 1959, and continued with writers such as Hilary Spurling, Richard Ellmann and Richard Holmes and Holroyd himself. They became “not rivals but pacemakers for each other”. Biography was, he said, a peculiarly British phenomenon: “If you want a biography of Proust, or Mann, or Goethe, or Strindberg, or Ibsen, you found yourself reading a British writer.”

But now, he said, “the trade winds are not behind biography”, despite some notable exceptions including Fiona MacCarthy’s forthcoming study of Edward Burne-Jones and Claire Tomalin’s of Dickens.

However, he said, the decline of the biography also means the dawn of a new age of experiment. “People are writing lives backwards; people are writing parts of lives. Look on the bright side: biographies are getting shorter.”

He attributed the decline of the “straight” biography to changing tastes among the public and to fashions in historiography.

Television, he said, has played its part in causing an upsurge in sales for popular-history books as against biography.

In academia, he said, “biography has been subsumed into ‘life writing’, which is more an aspect of sociology. One takes a representative of a category of people who have historically been overlooked”, rather than a single “great” figure of their age.

Holroyd himself has become an experimenter. His latest work, A Book of Secrets, mingles memoir with accounts of the lives of three women connected with one house – the Villa Cimbrone, overlooking the Gulf of Salerno in Italy. He appears in the book, he said, as a kind of Sancho Panza figure.

But it is to be his last book. “I enter my 77th year later this month. I feel it is better to give up before reviewers and readers beg you to do so.”

He would like to be remembered, he said, “as one of a dozen or so who have contributed to rather a good period of British biography”.

Edinburgh Symposium

November 1st, 2011 | Posted by Ray Monk in Discussion - (0 Comments)

There are a limited number of places available for our first symposium at Edinburgh (details below). It is free of charge, but we are allocating places on a first come, first served basis, so the sooner you apply for a place, the better. If you would like to attend, just drop me an email at: rm@soton.ac.uk

Best wishes,

Ray Monk