Monday musings on Australian literature: the National Centre of Biography

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.

17 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: the National Centre of Biography

  1. You must be psychic, Sue…just the other day as I was mulling over what to write about Kathleen Jones’ bio of Katherine Mansfield, I was thinking about the complexities of biography as a form. True, the biographer can’t know all of the subject’s feelings and motivations, and often even the ‘facts’ of a person’s life may be open to question (as they certainly are in the case of Mansfield!) But the biographer is (or should be, IMO) constrained by what is known about the subject’s life. It’s not like fiction; the biographer can’t make things up just to make the story more interesting. It becomes more a matter of research and the biographer’s skill in writing in an interesting way than a matter of creativity. Or am I selling the biographer short?

    • Wish I were psychic…but totally coincidental! One of the first things I did in retirement was to write a bio for the ADB. That was in early 2008 and they have just got back to me now re the article as they are preparing it for publication – it made me think about them again and the work they are doing!

      Anyhow you raise great questions … and I’d like to write more on it if I can get my thoughts together, as it’s something I’ve pondered on quite a bit in recent years. I agree, in general, the biographer should focus on the facts but there are grey areas where I think it is valid to make some assumptions/suggest theories. The challenge I think is to not be too wild (out of character) in these and, more critically, to make it clear that you are making them. Then we readers can decide for ourselves whether we agree or not?

      Jane Austen is a good example – there are some significant gaps in our knowledge and different biographers have handled it different ways, but the good ones have been clear about the gaps and what they are doing with them. I think one of the challenges for the biographer is how much to make of the gap/s. Ignoring that gap/s exist that can be dishonest too can’t it? The skilful biographer will draw that fine line and make the story interesting as well.

  2. I’ll probably be back to add something else here in an hour or two, but for now you’ve reminded me of an article Gideon Haigh published after he was asked to judge the National Biography Award : Sleaze-hounds and Artists on Oath: The State of Australian Biography:

    Here he is, talking about biographies on the Book Show:

    “Yet Australian biographies of quality – some excellent recent examples notwithstanding in Ann Blainey’s life of Nellie Melba and Jill Roe’s of Miles Franklin – have grown discouragingly scarce. It is almost twenty years since the last biography to have a serious public impact: David Marr’s Patrick White, in 1991. And just as Norman Mailer once said that Americans were incapable of approaching any book not already a best seller, so it seems Australian publishers are incapable of endowing books about anyone not already famous.


    Is biography a fading force in general? The twentieth century’s love affair with the genre might be regarded as a parallel impulse to the investigations and speculations of psychoanalysis – there was once even a school of so-called ‘psychobiography’. In a mental health regime now geared to medication rather than exploration, biography might even be thought at odds with the quest for well-being. Yet that doesn’t seem the case elsewhere.”

    • Oh, I’ll listen to that later (and check out Kill your darlings – great mag) … I usually enjoy what Gideon Haigh has to say. Though, biography as catharsis? Or, is he talking about autobiography?

      Are good Australian biographies discouragingly scarce? (I’ll be reading Hazel Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor later this year – hmm, is that an Australian biography!! I should read her Stead shouldn’t I?)

      BTW I wonder why this comment had to be moderated? I’ve heard that including links can cause that, but you included a link recently that didn’t send you into moderation!

      • He might mean that people in the twentieth century were so used to the idea of psychoanalysis being a kind of life-cleansing process, that they thought of biographies as a kind of supplementary cleansing, someone else’s cleansing, Eat Pray Love, a lifestyle thing rather than a scholarly pursuit. I’d have to read it again to be sure. Or maybe he was thinking of misery memoirs, people writing about their schizophrenia, their homelessness, the abuse they suffered from their parents, and the way people laughed at them in Year Three. Either way, it sounds as if his expectations are different, and he wants something scholarly, researched, and thoughtful. Which is what I would like too.

        I don’t know how Australian biographies, “discouragingly scarce,” stand in the general run of Australian books (which, compared to books from the UK or US are all “discouragingly scarce,” courtesy of a smaller population), but I do know that I’ve never read one that was as good as the best I’ve seen from Britain. I liked Rowley’s Stead, but Graham Robb’s Victor Hugo beats it.

        Why? Because Robb is not only strong-voiced, opinionated, and densely well-informed (he has read Hugo extensively in French, he has read multiple translations of him in English, he has read other Hugo biographies and has opinions on them) he also seems more energetic and less worried about tautness and neatness. And I think this attitude of letting-go, and allowing the life to take its course, is the way that biographers can overcome the problem of the gaps. Peter Ackroyd in Dickens has an interesting technique. He emphasises the ineffable mystery of his subject (and of any human life) so persistently that any gaps seem natural. Gaps are part of that ineffability. It helps that, like Robb, he gives the reader the impression that he’s read everything that could possibly be read, and if there was an article on page six of a newspaper in the year 1856 dealing with Dickens blowing his nose, then Ackroyd had read it. He does this with his style — he rains down facts on you.

        • I’ve now read the Haigh … and wondered the same as you. Are biographies, good ones, comparatively more scarce here? He doesn’t really provide stats, just lists of bios from UK and US.

          I did like his query though re “where is headed a culture so incurious about its past” – made me think a little of our writers homes discussion.

          Also, he and you above, also refer to memoirs/autobiographies. But, I am a little uncomfortable about lumping them together. Should I be? I do enjoy a good memoir (as of course there are good and bad memoirs just as there are good and bad bios) but is it a subgenre of biography or a parallel genre? A couple of paras after referring to a memoir as indicative of “a shared conviction” re the value of memoir, he implies that memoir can be a “slick and cheap substitute” which of course it can be. Literally I suppose they are a subgenre – a biography written by self – but analytically it’s problematic I think?

          Anyhow, thanks for the article … it’s a good read as is much in Kill your darlings.

  3. You should have a look at Iris Origo’s memoir Images and Shadows. Chapter 8, “Writing” discusses these questions–she wrote a biography of Leopardi and book on Byron’s affair with Teresa Guiccioli, among other biographical and autobiographical writings.

  4. I’m interested by the lag time in the ADB – is this due to a lack of manpower (womanpower! peoplepower!) in getting the entries written, or is it due to a sense of wanting to leave time between someone’s death and their “write-up”, out of a sense of respect or something? Like a life/biography copyright, if you will?

    • I suspect it’s mostly resources (for the editing, publishing etc) because I wrote mine in 2008 for people who died in 1980 and 83, but it’s not going to be published until next year (I think).

  5. I like a good biography especially biography of writers. In the U.S. memoir is the big thing but biography, especially historical ones of presidents are huge sellers. Hermione Lee and Richard Holmes have raised some interesting questions about biography in books they have written and essays. A.S. Byatt has fun with the subject in Biographer’s Tale. If you haven’t read that, I highly recommend it!

    • Ah thanks Stefanie. I would still like to read Hermione Lee’s one on Wharton. The Byatt does sound like one I should read.

      As for biographies of presidents, there has been a little upsurge here of biographies of prime ministers and political figures, and they also sell pretty well. I haven’t read them to know what their quality is.

      • I’ve always wondered who really reads all those political biographies, or is it like Stephen Hawkings book, that everyone bought it, but noone actually read it? Politicians are such a dull lot on the whole, and becoming more so by the day….

        I don’t read a lot of biography (almost none I suspect). I have read some in the past but can’t remember any for some time. I do like memoir as a form, and I suspect it’s a parallel genre to biography. I’ve recently taken to listening to memoirs in the car, now that I actually have what could be considered a commute to get to work. I find it much easier to listen to than fiction, which I’ve always had a hard time with, I drift off….

        • Oh don’t drift off when you drive Louise, otherwise you’ll end up a patient in the place where you work! And, you have a commute now? Have I missed something lately in all my travelling out and about. Anyhow, I do read biographies – probably the most recent one was of Jane Austen. I think there have been some recent biographies of Chifley and Curtin that have done well. At least, my father read them!

  6. In my mind I separate memoirs and autobiographies like this: an autobiography is a biography (the person’s birth up to the present moment in the person’s life) written by the person themselves, while a memoir can be looser and freer or more focussed, like that Dyer book Haigh mentions, for instance, or Shirley Hazzard’s Greene on Capri, about her friendship with Graham Greene, or Nicholson Baker’s U and I,, in which Baker thinks about John Updike, the influence that Updike’s books have had on his life, how his mother used to read them, how he met Updike in the flesh and made a gawk of himself, how embarrassed he was, what that says about him in general, etc, etc. Hazzard doesn’t only talk about herself, or about Greene, she also writes about the history of Capri, and about some mutual friends of theirs. A memoir can be more selective and wandering. That’s my vague impression. So I wouldn’t say that memoirs were inferior but I’d expect more factual rigour out of an autobiography. I wonder if Penne Hackforth-Jones (whose Baynton biography I’ve growled about before) would have been better off if she’d written a memoir instead, seeing as Baynton was her — great-aunt, I think, or something like that? The book’s in storage. Connected to her in a family sense, anyway. But she could have approached the subject from an impressionistic perspective, saying, “She was my, whatever-she-was, and here are the family stories about her, and here are some relics, and now watch me as I research those relics, and discover …” It might have helped her with her own gap-problem.

    • Yes, DKS, your separation of autobiography and memoir accords with mine exactly (thought the terms are used in a rather muddied way commercially, mostly I suspect because the word “memoir” is probably more inviting). I’ve read Greene on Capri – an engaging read. I agree too that “memoir” isn’t necessarily lesser but one’s expectations are different re rigour. A memoir can be a looser (more flexible) beast,

      I remember your growl about the Hackforth-Jones bio! I won’t race out to read it.

  7. Pingback: Bobble-heads, Curses, and Buffism: the Future of Biography (last part) « Writing Kurt Vonnegut

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