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

Report from Edinburgh

November 11th, 2011 | Posted by Ray Monk in Discussion

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.

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