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Fall 1999

The Case Against Biography

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Michael Holroyd
In an article for the New York Review of Books, John Updike recently set out to attack biography. Even the best biographies were too long, he suggested, and what was the point of them anyway? They didn’t really sell. They weren’t really needed. All that literary biographies could do was to send readers back to the subjects’ own books. In short: they were reminders—and remainders.

Those last words are mine, not John Updike’s. For such was his good nature, and such had been his enjoyment of, for example, George Painter’s Proust, that his attack turned into an affectionate single cheer for biography—rather in the manner of E. M. Forster’s two cheers for democracy.

But I believe I can do better than that: I believe I can quench that single cheer, because I can attack biography from the inside. The truth is that biographers flatter themselves—after all, no one else will. They regard themselves as saints, apparently because they are always thinking of other people. And yet they are not universally popular. “Every man has his disciples,” Oscar Wilde famously said, “and it is always Judas who writes the biography.” George Eliot too declared that “biographers are generally a disease of English Literature”—and this despite the fact that she lived happily with Goethe’s biographer, G. H. Lewes. But she was speaking collectively, not about her single exception. Nevertheless, all biographers believe they are that single exception.

All this invective, these insults, are perversely worn by biographers as if they were battle honors. Yet it is a battle they have not won. For this artillery of abuse has multiplied and magnified during this century and looks like being a good growth area for the verbal armaments industry of the twenty-first century. Rebecca West, for example, pictured biographers profitably picnicking round the tombstones of the newly dead; and Germaine Greer, who dismissed biographies as “pre-digested carrion,” later called on biographers to take up, for God’s sake, an honorable trade. Did they, I ask, go far enough? And what, in any case, provokes this barrage of hostility?

In rough and ready terms there are, I believe, three categories of biographer. First comes the biographer who writes about the very famous, either among the living or the warm dead. This class of biographer keeps company with film stars, murderers, and the Royal Family. What people chiefly hate about them is that they make a lot of money. For surely they make it in a highly dubious way. They trade on other people’s miseries, dine out on their tragedies, and make the trivial perpetually portentous.

Also they exploit our own weaknesses, our prurience, our snobbery. They are our worst selves. They encourage us to behave badly; indeed, they count on it. They are the virtual receivers, these biographers, of stolen money. They do not make money, they take money. And it is tainted money. We pay them for our addictions: they are our suppliers.

Nor are they proper writers, but simply jumped-up journalists—the illegitimate descendants of Boswell, that keeper of a great journal. They used to be called “Grub Street biographers”: creatures that inhabited the slum end of Fleet Street, and who, in the words of Joseph Addison (the owner of the Spectator magazine in the early eighteenth century), “watch for the death of a great man, like so many undertakers, on purpose to make a penny of him.” It was impossible, he added, to reflect on this sort of writer “without indignation as well as contempt.”

So not much has changed. These biographers still sway to the music of fashion, bringing down the mighty from their high places when it is safe and popular to do so, but allowing us to rise into a world of myth and vanity when it best serves their advantage. And always they take the easy way: purveying the simple story of romantic rumor and scandalous speculation pepped up, whenever the plot sags, by decorative invention. They thrive in an infantile climate where the cult of youth roams unmocked, unchecked. For they are writing fairy stories for adults who never grow up. These are the most newsworthy biographers of our own day and perhaps the easiest to attack. Fat sitting ducks.

But what of contemporary historical biographers, the political biographers of some last-but-one prime minister? They are easily recognized hybrids with one foot in a university, the other in Downing Street. This is the second category of biographer: the ambitious professor. Is he, is she, any better? Are they not trying to get the sales of the Grub Street merchants without their street vulgarity—the one jumped-up, the other dumbed-down?

Certainly these almost-instant political biographers are not greatly es-teemed by their peers. They are looked down on by other historians who write for their academic selves, and they attract little interest from the self-employed professional biographers, who write for almost no one. They are at the shallow end of history, steering close to what is called the Cleopatra’s Nose school of history (the notion, masquerading as an ideology, that had Cleopatra’s nose been a fraction longer, as long as, say, Cyrano de Bergerac’s was, then the course of history would have been dramatically changed). Can you get much more superficial than that? Even with a host of reference notes? It is the sort of history that film-makers love, television history served up with music and a grave narrator.

There is something curiously obsequious, too, about these all-but-instant historians. They appear to be promising statesmen and prime ministers—particularly prime ministers—a good end-of-term report, a favorable verdict, in return for a few invitations, a few decorations. But they are really history’s butlers, continually absorbed by their duty of rating the events they announce in the order of conventional importance, always busy solemnly ushering in the facts, forever replete with their ceremonious duties, and eternally guarding their self-esteem, like Admirable Crichtons, by reminding themselves of their intellectual superiority from their socially inferior position when they return to their islands of Academe. What a crew! A pox on the lot of them!

Finally there is the third category, the literary or artistic biographer. Surely they are better. Do they not go back to Dr. Johnson? Are they not part of our literature? It is true that, like the poor, they seem to have always been with us. But the answer as to whether they are part of our contemporary literature is a resounding NO! Ask any novelist, poet, or playwright what she thinks about such biographers and you will not have to wait long for a heartfelt answer. Biographers are parasites. They are Fifth Column agents within the ranks of literature, intent on reducing all that is imaginative, all that is creative in literature, to pedestrian autobiography. They are the slaves of their absurd and meager theories. They feed off literature; they attempt to replace it.

They rob us also of enchantment—they are continually trying to explain how the rabbit got into the hat before the novelist or poet produces her magic. And they pervert the poet’s creative imagination by representing it as a mere conjuring trick. They overlook Marlowe’s mighty line, and tell us with immense scholarship and at tedious length what Byron had for breakfast. They are at best superfluous, these literary biographers with their relentless, their talentless dustjacket smiles. For the essential truth is simple: Flaubert was born, Flaubert wrote his novel, Flaubert died. It is his work, which is unique, that matters, not the ordinary experience he shared with so many others.

“A shilling life will give you all the facts,” wrote W. H. Auden in his poem “Who’s Who.” But it is the literary biographer, with his obscene advance on royalties, who tips the poet sixpence on his death. “Rest in one piece old fellow,” counseled D. J. Enright in his poem “Biography,” “May no one make his money / Out of your odd poverty / Telling what you did / When the sheets stared blankly back.” I could go on, but it is too painful.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many writers—Dickens, James, even Freud—took the trouble to burn their papers, or that many more, realizing that they could not burn the letters they had sent other people, posted up warnings to their executors against these trespassing biographers? T. S. Eliot, Somerset Maugham, George Orwell, Jean Rhys, Philip Larkin all did this, or approximately this, in their wills—and much good it did them. For literary biographers have no conscience about such matters. They trample anywhere.

But what is it that those arsonists and will-makers so greatly fear? They fear for nothing less than their literary immortality. They fear that some inflated biography, some dead lump of a book with only the reflected light of some quotations in it, will eclipse their own work, blot it out, extinguish it. That is what, at their worst, literary biographies can do. And how often, how very often, they are at their worst! They fill up our bookshops, they crowd the shelves of our library, leaving librarians with little money to buy genuine works of the imagination.

And there is worse than that. For these biographies are not even valued by literary critics, who have been driven by all this awful grave-digging to insist that the author is finally dead, and that her text belongs now to the reader—guided of course by the critic himself. In short: biography, as even the French know, is a substitute for genuine criticism, a substitute for thought, and the very enemy of literature. This is why George Gissing wrote that “the only good biographies are to be found in novels.”

I would like to end by trying to put my remarks in a historical context. Over the last hundred years, since Gissing made that remark about biography and the novel, there has been a struggle between fiction and nonfiction as to who shall tell the story of our days, who shall open our eyes to their significance. Traditionally, of course, this has been the job of the historian. But something went wrong with history. Historians became like deaf people, Tolstoy observed, who went on answering questions no one had asked. Their heads were full of dates and kings and battles. Centuries of such chroniclers had elevated the history of political power into the history of the world. No wonder, then, that the novelist, the poet, and the dramatist stepped forward to speak for us.

As the rift between history and literature widened, historians amended their agenda and developed their case against these storytellers. And what they said was that life is not novel-shaped. It is not generally poetic. It is regrettably inartistic. Though literature may have all sorts of magical charms and rhymes and stories to enchant or chasten us, we hoodwinked ourselves if we believed we could learn, for example, more about the French Revolution from Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities than from reading Carlyle. Even if poets, novelists, playwrights could use their imaginations as divining rods in the search for underground wells of truth, the search was fundamentally flawed when they employed facts in the guise of fiction. For in supplying a story by invention we too easily admit what Defoe called “a sort of lying that makes a great hole in the heart at which, by degrees, the habit of lying enters in.” In other words, we write what we want to happen rather than what actually happens.

Between history and the novel stands biography, their unwanted offspring, which has brought a great embarrassment to them both. In the historian’s view, biography is a kind of frogspawn —it takes a thousand biographies to make one small history. To the novelist we are simply what James Joyce called “biografiends”—“psycho-plagiarists,” in Nabokov’s phrase. Yet biographers claim to have thrived on their outcast state. While so much history has been respectably academicized, and even the novel fenced off behind academic theory, the biographer is still free to roam wherever his instinct takes him. A vital literature needs cross-border trading. But what I have pointed to is cross-border hostilities seen from the enemy side. From such a perspective, biographers appear to have greatly exaggerated their power and significance. They are little more than guerrilla bands, with some small successes perhaps, but no chance of matching the major branches of writing. Who can claim more for them? Surely it is an impossible task.

Michael Holroyd has written highly acclaimed biographies of Lytton Strachey and George Bernard Shaw, among others. He lives in London.

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