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Michael Holroyd laments the decline of biography in Edinburgh festival lecture

November 3rd, 2011 | Posted by Adrian Smith in Discussion

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”.

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