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:
- Australian Literary Biographies
- The Hazel Rowley Literary Fund
- Indigenous Australian biographies
- The National Biography Award
- The National Centre of Biography (here in Canberra)
- Political biography
- Seymour Biography Lecture (an annual donor-supported lecture devoted to life-writing).
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 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.
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?
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?