What is life? Life itself, as you will realise if you consult a dictionary, is hard enough to define. But what is a life? And why does it matter? For itself (a question of honour)? Or for what one can make of it as a biographer (which may mean trespass)? I am old-fashioned enough to believe that it matters for and in itself. But what precisely is it that I am trying to honour and how do I do that? (Veronica Brady, on writing about Australian poet Judith Wright)
Do you like to read biographies? I do, though I don’t read as many as I would like to because fiction tends to have the edge in my reading priorities. Nonetheless, it is a form (genre?) that fascinates me. How do you structure the story of a person’s life? What do you do about the gaps in knowledge? (Even in a well-documented life you are not going to “know” all of your subject’s feelings and motivations.) How do you handle the ethics (not to mention legalities) of revealing perhaps “uncomfortable” truths? How do you make it readable? And so on …
Biographies of course take many forms – from the brief overview documenting the key points in a person’s life to a narrative telling the story of someone’s life. In Australia, one of the best examples of the former is the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) from the Australian National University (ANU). First published in 1966, the ADB now contains “concise, informative and fascinating descriptions of the lives of over 12,000 significant and representative persons in Australian history” (from the website), and is also available online. The online version largely parallels the printed version. In other words there is a long lead time (we are talking years, here) between when the articles are written and their appearance in print and online. (Surely this has to change?) Currently, ADB is working on entries for people who died between 1991 and 2000, with the edition covering those who died between 1981 and 1990 due for publication in 2012! It is, however, despite this lag time, a useful starting point for research into Australians.
In 2008, the ANU established the National Centre of Biography (NCB). It is now responsible for the production of the ADB, but it has a wider mandate, relating to fostering and encouraging expert and innovative biographical writing in Australia through such activities as teaching, conducting public lectures and symposia, and inviting international scholars to the Centre. Exciting stuff, eh?
This year, the NCB also launched Obituaries Australia. Their stated aim is to “collect every obituary that has been published and to index them so they can be searched by researchers”. Currently though the site contains only around 2000 entries, which is why almost every search I tried came up blank. You have to start somewhere though …
All this suggests that biography is, in fact, alive, well and taken seriously in Australia. In addition to the work being fostered at the ANU, there are a number of literary prizes here for biographical or life writing. They include:
There are also several non-fiction awards, such as The Age Non-fiction Award and the non-fiction and history categories in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, for which biographies are eligible and have in fact won.
I will come back to biography again in a future Monday musings, but, in the meantime, would love to know whether you read biographies and how well you think the form is supported by the literary or cultural establishment in your country.