Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 3: Biography

Time for another in my little Monday Musings sub-series on “supporting” genres. I’ve chosen Biography for this one, since the 2021 National Biography Award winner will be announced this month.

However, I have written quite a bit about Australian biography before:

David Marr, NLA Seymour Lecture, Sept 2016

Given all this, you might think that this post is superfluous, but I figured that it’s helpful to put all these together in one post as a resource for myself (and maybe for others too?) These posts provide significance evidence for the support of and interest in biography in Australia – and they mean that the rest of this post will be a bit different to the first two “supporting genre” posts.


You may have noticed that I described the Seymour Biography Lecture as “devoted to life-writing” – and here’s the rub, because there is quite a blurring of definitions when we talk about “biography” these days. Traditionally, biography has been seen as a detailed description of a person’s life written by a third person. Autobiography, on the other hand, is the story of a person’s life, written by that person. Then there’s memoir which focuses on a particular aspect or period of a person’s life, and is written, again, by that person. All of these come under the banner of “life-writing”. The problem is that, for example, the Seymour Biography Award is called “biography” but the lectures are, in fact, broader. Indeed, the first lecture we went to was given by Robert Drewe who has written, and who thus talked about, memoir.

This is fine but the nomenclature is strange, don’t you think? Even our National Biography Award is, actually, a national life writing award. It “celebrates excellence in biography, autobiography and memoir writing” says the Award website. Interestingly, though, while all these forms feature regularly in the shortlists, traditional biographies have tended to be the winners. A recent exception was Behrouz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains.

Life-writing now

Life-writing is big business. Search online and you will find many companies offering to help you write your life story, or to write your life story for you. You will also find courses on life-writing. Daughter Gums did one a few years ago at the ACT Writers Centre taught by memoirist Benjamin Law.

The Fellowship of Australian Writers NSW (FAWNSW) has an excellent page on the subject written by Dr Rae Luckie. They quote from La Trobe University’s description of its Unit for Studies in Biography and Autobiography.

Life writing is now one of the most dynamic and rapidly developing fields of international scholarship. It includes not just biography and autobiography, but also diaries, journals, letters, and the use of life narrative in various disciplines: history, anthropology, sociology, politics, business and leadership studies, sport, and others… In addition to its high academic profile, life writing generates great interest among the general public: works of biography and autobiography sell in vast numbers.

Nadia Wheatley, Her mother's daughter

Luckie talks about changes in the field, saying that “writers whose work is included under the umbrella of ‘life writing’ have broken traditional auto/biographical boundaries”. She mentions works I read before blogging, like Inga Clendinnen’s Tiger’s eye, Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s consolation, and, even, Robert Dessaix’s “autobiographical novel” Night letters! While I enjoy the traditional biography, and have reviewed several here, I am not averse to reading writers who play with the form, like the hybrid-biography-memoirs I’ve reviewed (such as Nadia Wheatley’s Her mother’s daughter and Gabrielle Carey’s Moving among strangers)

The biggest change, though, is probably that academic historians are now embracing the form in a way they hadn’t previously. If you are interested in a discussion of the topic, check out this in the first issue of the Australian Journal of Biography and History. The authors comment on the fact that “there are now prizes to encourage biographical writing, lectures that feature prominent biographers, biography research centres and courses in universities, public conferences and so on.” Another interesting point they make is the significant role biography played in feminist history.

Biography – and life-writing – are now serious, as well as, marketable business. You heard it here!

Zeitgeist, or Serendipity?

Book cover

And now for something completely different. It concerns those funny coincidences which happen in the literary firmament, like when David Lodge’s Author, author and Colm Tóibín’s The master, which are novels about Henry James, both came out in 2004. What was that about?

Well, I’ve noticed another strange coincidence: the recent publication of Jennifer Walker’s Elizabeth of the German Garden: A biography of Elizabeth Von Arnim (2017), Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim (2020) and Joyce Morgan’s The Countess from Kirribilli: The mysterious and free-spirited literary sensation who beguiled the world (2021). Many of you, I know, have heard of Elizabeth von Arnim. Her best-known works are the satirically humorous Elizabeth and her German Garden and the popular Enchanted April which was made into a successful feature film starring many of our favourite grand dames of English theatre. For those of you who don’t know her, though, she’s a British novelist who was born in Sydney (Kirribilli) in 1866, but who moved to England with her family when she was three and never lived here again. Her connection with Australia is therefore tenuous, but she was a wonderful character who moved among the biggest literary movers and shakers of her time. I devoured many of her novels, and a memoir, back in the 80s and 90s when Virago published her. Why this flurry of interest now? (Not that I disagree.)

Do you read biography? If so, care to share some favourites?

Previous supporting genre posts: 1. Historical fiction; 2. Short stories

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 3: Biography

  1. Garry Kinnane – George Johnston – A Biography. (The 1986 Age non-fiction book) I was on a three island day-long cruise from Piraeus – just prior to Easter 1988 – finishing the last pages as the vessel pulled into the little harbour of Hydra. Of you go said my wife ass I raced ashore – ran to the nearest corner Kafeneion – held out the book with a photo of the house where George and Charmian and family had lived and asked where it. I was directed to the street just by the corner going straight up – and up which I raced (I think the ferry was having a 40″ minute stopover) and reached the place – the little square – took some photos raced back down – in time for an ice-cream? And off we went back to Piraeus. I was 38. Perfect age for racing around on literary pilgrimages – and off a couple of days later to Kalamata…more literary figures – Patrick Leigh Fermor – Sheelagh Kannelli – and Gillian Bouras.

      • Hello Whispering Gums Have had a lovely time trawling through your posts as background for an episode of my podcast, Life Sentences, which is all about biography. I am about talk to helen Vines about the Pea Pickers, such a bizarre story. Sadly my local library does not have the Langley book but I am determined to read it.
        I enjoy your thoughts and hope you don’t mind me promoting Life Sentences to your readers who might enjoy the podcast. It is is not exclusively Australian in focus, although Series 1 is. After that, it becomes a mix of local and international interviews with biographers on a wide range of topics, not all of them literary. It is free, and growing its following gradually.I am curious to see Biography struggling a bit for purchase and presence on festival programs, dwarfed by memoir. The genre is costly in time and money which makes it a rather privileged endeavour.As a Hazel Rowley winner, I know how much it helps to have support and backing for a project that can take years ( mine was interrupted by COVID, as it requires research in France). I did an episode on Hazel with her sister and Drusilla Modjeska that you might enjoy. Anyway, enough Sunday rabbiting! Best wishes,

        • Of course I don’t mind Caroline. It’s lovely to have you comment her. I understand what you mean about biography versus memoir. You will find a few of us litbloggers are fans of biography, particularly literary biographies. We have our pet projects that we’d like biographers to do, like, for example, Amy Witting!

          Seriously, though, I hope you read and enjoy The pea pickers, and I will check out your podcast. I’m afraid I rarely listen to podcasts, not because I’m not interested – far from it – but because of time. There are just so many out there, and I seem to have little time for quiet reading let alone quiet listening.

  2. Tomorrow is a work day, so this is the best I can manage late at night. I enjoy literary biographies, I enjoy and perhaps even prefer my fiction to be biographical. Of course I admire Helen Garner’s writing, and my next post will be on the narrow distinction between her journals and her fiction.
    And right now I am reading a Japanese I-novel in which that distinction (apparently) is deliberately blurred.

    • Yes, I like both of those too ie literary biography and biographical fiction. It takes a particular sort of writer to write the second though because they can bare a lot and I don’t think all writers want to – or need to – do that. But, it is one of the reasons I love Garner because you can feel her heart right in it.

      Are you going to review the Japanese novel?

  3. I do read a fair bit of biography and memoir. A couple come to mind with an Australian connection: Jill Ker Conway’s The Road from Coorain and Wilfrid Sheed’s Frank and Maisie–though both Frank Sheed and Jill Ker Conway died in the northeastern US.

    Academic or semi-academic memoirs: In Plato’s Cave by Alvin Kernan, Confessions of an Original Sinner by John Lukacs.. Memoirs of exile and/or imprisonment: Herzen’s memoirs, Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi, Into the Whirlwind by Evgeniya Ginzburg; Hope Against Hope by Nadezhda Mandelstam.

    Political etc. biography or memoir: Gladstone by Roy Jenkins, The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, George Kennan’s memoirs.

    Literary: Yeats’s Autobiographies, Henry James’s Autobiography. A step down, but very American is Wright Morris’s A Cloud of Light.

    Somewhere or another there’s room for Nirad Chaudhuri’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, and by a stretch of interpretation Henry Adams’s collected letters.

    • Thanks, George. I have read Jill Ker Conway’s two memoirs, and liked them, though had some mixed feelings about the first one. I often think of reading it again. I have another of hers, one of her Written by herself books.

      I don’t know Sheed. And I know some of your others, but haven’t read any of them. I have read a couple of political biographies – but Australian ones – and I do like literary biographies and autobiographies (letters, diaries, etc). A memoir of imprisonment that I haven’t read but that comes highly recommended is Nelson Mandela’s Long walk to freedom. Have you read it?

      It looks like you read more autobiography/memoir than biography? Or is this just how it looks from those you’ve listed here.

      • I hadn’t really thought about it, but you are correct. Perhaps this is because biographers in the US at least tend to drown you in detail. As an example, Robert Caro wrote a four-volume biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson; a glance at a bookstore website gives a figure of about 3500 pages. I don’t have time in my day or space on my shelves to read. And if the biography is of a writer, one ends up noticing paraphrases of the subject’s own words, almost always in much inferior prose.

        I read The Road from Coorain twice, and thought after the second reading that it might have been subtitled, “How I Overcame the Handicaps of Landed Wealth, Expensive Schooling, and Great Beauty.” I still found it interesting.

        • Ah, you make some good points George. Biographers, like many who do research, have to work out what to leave out, and when they are hoping to authoritatively document a life they probably find that hard. I have of course heard about the Cari biography and completely understand your POV.

          Your comment re the writing in biographies about writers made me laugh. Hard to argue with that… except on the shaky grounds of objectivity versus subjectivity!

  4. You knew you’d see something from me here, eh, ST ?
    I absolutely loved “The Enchanted April”, and have the book (for what use that is to me, but then I have more than the one), and never knew of that link.

  5. I like literary bios, and (as you know) I’ve read and reviewed a few of them and have more on the TBR shelf.
    I like the occasional political bio: I really liked reading David Day’s bios of Curtin and Chifley because I learned a lot about Australian social life in the era before I was born and about Australia at war. We called one of our dogs after Chifley, and I loved it when older people would smile and say ‘Oh, he was a wonderful prime minister’.
    I also like musician bios, opera singers, composers etc.

    • Why am I not surprised by your response Lisa?! I’d like to read Day’s Chifley in particular. He was loved wasn’t he, despite the love affair rumours.

      Essentially, as you too know, my biography preferences align with yours. Perhaps more actors than opera singers, but most respected/achieving people in the performing arts interest me. One of my favourite political biographies is Hazel Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor.

      • Yes, I liked that one too.
        Which is surprising to me, because I have very little interest in US history or its notable people. It just shows you how good the bio is.

        • Well, it is written by an Australian!! Maybe you might read the unauthorised Tiger Woods next, the one that Meg was was encouraged to readt!! Seriously though, I think a good biographer can make many subjects interesting, though there are limits.

          The Roosevelts were really interesting people regardless of where they came from I think. I’ll never forget seeing evidence all over the USA , particularly in and near national parks, of his Great Depression New Deal projects. That project is a wonderful legacy.

  6. John Docker’s three-volume Growing Up Communist and Jewish in Bondi is arguably the best Australian memoir I’ve read. That’s saying a lot, I know, but it’s clearly a masterpiece and should be widely read, but probably won’t. Because each of its volumes is long and there are three of them. I gasped when I open the box my editor sent, thinking what have I got myself into by agreeing to review it. But the writing is marvellous, its passions and insights and constant surprises totally engage and I almost wept when I’d read the lot and the journey through with him had ended. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

    • Thanks Sara. I’ve just looked up these. I can see how you would have gulped when the set landed in your mailbox! It sounds excellent – covering a great period of Australian history and, I’m guessing fascinating personal lives. I love a book that you feel really sad to finish.

  7. Hi Sue, I do like the term ‘life- writing’. I do read autobiographies, biographies and memoirs. I couldn”t name a favourite; there are too many good books. My favourite autobiography last year was, I was sang for My Supper by Margaret Fulton. I think my first introduction to autobiographies was in my teens when I read Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T E Lawrence. The last unauthorised biography I read was Tiger Woods. It was a fascinating read. I only read it because a sports announcer said it was the best biography of anyone he had read. I have just finished two Australian biographies, Mother and I by Ianto Ware, and Shy Love Smiles and Acid Drops by Jane Sinclair, again fascinating reads. And, of course Helen Garner diaries/memoirs are always captivating reads.

    • Thanks for this detailed response Meg. Loved hearing all these. You made me think about my first. Not formally autobiography, but in the area of life-writing, is The diary of Anne Frank, that would be my first. I’d have to think hard about the next one. (Finished the comment and still thinking so will leave it here. Might have been the story of the Von Trapp Family Singers!)

      I’m glad you explained the Tiger Woods because that surprised me, but a description like that would intrigue me. He’s such a ”tragic” character. Unauthorised biographies can be tricky but if well done, they can be better, can’t they, because the writer is free from feeling obliged to the subject.

      I don’t know those two Australian ones, but of course I agree with you re Garner!

  8. I’ve loved Diana Athill’s books about her life and being an editor and of course Alan Bennet’s books are ‘such fun’. I still remember a lot of Lauren Bacall’s autobiography from way back in the 1970s and Agatha Christie’s too. I love von Arnim but haven’t got around to reading her bio.

    • Oh good ones Katrina. I gave my mum one of Athill’s as I gave her a lot of books by and about editors, dictionaries etc. I think I now have it. Would love to read it.

      I have only read Bennet’s The lady and the van. Loved that, but I know he’s written “bigger” ones. I still have Lauren Bacall’s on my shelf. It wold probably fall apart in my hands now if I tried to open it! I read quite a few actor bios and autobios in my 20s when I first started working in a film library. I had loved midday movies – and all those classic Hollywood films – in my teens (in the school holidays)!

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