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Can Biography Survive? Southampton, 3-4 July 2012. Conference Report

July 10th, 2012 | Posted by Ray Monk in Discussion

Two years in the planning, this was a major event, involving many of the leading figures, not only in biography, but also in the publishing and book-selling world. Indeed, it was the perfect fulfillment of the network’s aim to bring people together from as wide a range as possible. Among the speakers were academics from departments of English, History, Politics, Sociology, Geography and Philosophy. There were also some of the freelance biographers whose works has done most to shape the genre over the last few decades, as well as some of the agents, publishers and booksellers who have been at the forefront of the book industry’s attempts to come to terms with the deep and rapid economic and technological changes which have presented such formidable challenges in recent years.

The papers and discussion sessions fell roughly into three groups. First, there were those that presented reflections on the genre from various academic perspectives. The historian Stephen Brooke, for example, drew attention to the importance of treating a person’s life, not as a simple narrative, but rather as, in Walt Whitman’s famous phrase, ‘containing multitudes’. Robert Fraser, a professor of English, looked at biography from a literary point of view, discussing its characteristic styles and tropes. Meanwhile, the philosopher Paal Antonsen raised questions about the supposed exclusiveness of biography from other disciplines and concluded that, actually, it should really be seen, not as an independent genre, but rather simply part of history. Starting from the opposite assumption – that biography is a genre in its own right – Jeremy Treglown, a professor of English at Warwick, argued that reports of its demise were, as those of Mark Twain’s had been, ‘greatly exaggerated’.

Others discussed the challenges and prospects of particular types of biography. The sociologist Silke Roth gave a summary of her work on international aid workers, while Becky Conekin’s paper discussed another relatively specialised area of concern: the lives of fashion models during the forties, fifties and sixties. Much less specific was Alex Danchev’s impassioned discussion of the lives of artists, a sub-drama whose importance Professor Danchev urged with great passion and conviction. The methodological problems of writing collective biographies were analysed by Jack Corbett from the Australian National University, while the issues raised by the opposite situation – a collection of biographies of a single individual – were discussed by June Purvis in her presentation of the various lives of the suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst and also by the geographer Liz Baigent, who considered the various lives that have been written of the explorer Kate Marsden. Andrew Hadfield, professor of English at the University of Sussex, talked very entertainingly and enlighteningly about his recent experience of turning the few scanty documentary records of Edmund Spenser’s life that exist into a 600 page scholarly biography.

Though she has taught at Oxford, Manchester and Columbia, Claire Harman would more naturally be thought of as a literary biographer than as an academic, having written prize-winning biographies of Sylvia Townsend Warner, Fanny Burney and Robert Louis Stevenson. Her talk, ‘Looking Back and Looking Forward’ focused on the ways in which various biographies have approached the task of revising their work and how new technology – in particular, the e-book – offers an opportunity to approach this task in a completely new way. It was a fascinatingly fresh look at an old theme. Among the other freelance writers in attendance was the eminent man of letters, Frederic Raphael, who, among his many other distinctions, can count winning an Oscar. He has recently finished a biography of the Romano-Jewish historian, Josephus, and talked with great wit and elegance about the importance of the imagination for the biographer. On the morning of the second day, the freelance historian, writer and biographer Helen Rappaport gave an extraordinarily stimulating discussion, based on her own experience as a practitioner of the genre, about how biography might be rejuvenated by a more imaginative approach, not just with regard to writing but also with regard to choosing a subject. Why, she asked, should the subject of a biography be the whole life of a person. Why not a few years or even just a moment? In a masterly and captivating presentation, Richard Holmes – regarded by many as the greatest living biographer writing in English – provided another fresh perspective when he described why he, known to everyone as a literary biographer, had now turned his attention to science and scientists. There were, he suggested, signs that we are currently going through a golden period of scientific biography, even during this period of economic and technological change and uncertainty.

Which brings me to the third and final group of presenters: those in the business. First up was Stuart Proffitt, who, as Publishing Director of Penguin, is in an excellent position to know which way the winds are blowing through the publishing industry. Supporting his argument with some useful statistics, he gave a sobering analysis (but one not entirely without hope) of the state of both the bookselling business as a whole and the biography market in particular. The gist of Stuart’s analysis was confirmed by the bookseller Tim Waterstone, who told us that the book market in the UK grew year on year by about 3% between 1947 and 2004, when it reached a peak of £5.8 bn. Since 2007 the market has declined by 21%, and in the near future, Tim thinks, it will be down to about £3 bn, a third of which would be accounted for by e-books. The market for good old fashioned, “physical” books (those made of paper rather than electrons), then, will soon be less than half of what it was a few years ago. The implications of this were thrashed out in the lively and fascinating panel discussion that followed Tim’s talk. On the panel were two agents (David Godwin and Gill Coleridge), a publisher (Dan Franklin of Jonathan Cape) and a literary editor (Miriam Gross, who used to edit the book pages of the Sunday Telegraph and has been at the centre of Britain’s literary world for the last four decades). For many people, this panel discussion was the highlight of the conference, not only because of the spirited ways in which the panelists argued for their widely different reactions to the economic situation (Dan Franklin was inclined to be gloomy, David Godwin resolutely upbeat), but also because of the very pertinent interventions made by members of the audience. It was at this session that the hopes of the conference organisers received their most direct fulfillment, with authors having the chance to present their concerns to publishers, and academics having the opportunity to hear at first-hand how the current state of the market for biographies is affecting those who make their living from writing them.

For many, this bringing together of very different kinds of people affected by the challenges to biography presented by today’s world was the real value of the event. One impressed academic wrote to me afterwards: ‘I didn’t comprehend in advance that all those luminaries from UK publishing and book trade would attend and participate’, while an agent told me it had been ‘a fascinating glimpse into academic life’. Richard Holmes described it as ‘a very well-organized and exceptionally multifaceted Conference, bubbling with ideas’, while June Purvis, I think, spoke for many, when she wrote ‘it would be a pity for the AHRC funded Biography Network to dwindle away. Is it possible to keep it going??? ‘ This last is a question to which we are now putting our minds and on which we would love to hear the views of everyone who has taken part in any of our events.

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