The Dangerous Art of Biography
Introduction Controversies In commercial terms, biography has become one of the most successful areas of publishing in modern Western culture. This is especially so in Anglo-American countries, where biographies often outsell novels.1 As a biographical critic noted recently, nowadays ‘the troubled face’ of biography ‘has become the self-assured, even complacent smile of a widely recognized and highly successful kind of writing’.2 In the academic arena, however, biography remains surrounded by controversy. Objections raised include the inevitable ‘lies and silences’ in biogra- phies,3 the possible pain caused to people mentioned in the biography,4 the idea that focusing on a single person is an inevitable falsification,5 that focusing on a person’s inner life means pursuing the unknowable,6 and the uneasy marriage between fact and fiction in biography.7 The issues raised so far are epistemological and ethical ones, but there are also aesthetic issues: the inclusiveness of biographies (seen in both Victorian times and in the twentieth century as something which can militate against art)8 and the lack of criteria or even terminology to judge biographies by.9 As a literary art form, biography has been relatively neglected by academics. Historians of biographical criticism have noted that there has been some progress in the field since the nineteenth century: among biographical critics, there is an emerging consensus that biography at its best is a work of art (as opposed to an earlier view which often saw the biographer merely as a collector of facts, not as an interpreter or...
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