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New Life in Life Writing: a discussion held at Senate House on 15 May 2013

Posted by on May 18, 2013

Chair: Max Saunders: Professor of English at Kings College; Co-Director of the Centre for Life Writing Research; Convenor of the MA in Life Writing. Edits the annual series of Ford Maddox Ford Studies.

Michael Holroyd: doyen of British literary biographers. See his CV on His latest biography (said to be his last) had mixed reviews: was about some women of not very great importance, connected by illegitimacy, place.

Sarah Bakewell: her first biography:- How to live: a Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty answers. A biography-cum-analysis of Montaigne’s writing.

Wendy Moffat: American, Professor of English at Dickinson College, Pennsylvania. Her first biography:- E.M.Forster: a New Life. She had access to Forster’s previously unpublished secret memoirs, so was better able to bring him to life as a human being, as well as a writer, than previous biographers.


Views on the current state of the field.

Max Saunders’ view was that publishers haven’t come to grips with changing technology and business models.   Financial constraints dissuaded them from financing biographies that take years to produce.

Sarah Bakewell said that to appeal to general readers, it was advisable to either pick out a particular time period in the subject’s life as the focus, to ground the story in a particular place, or to approach a life through the objects associated with it; i.e. find a slightly lateral angle into the subject’s life. She thought that subjects in whom the reader could see a reflection of his or her own ideas and life-experiences were motivation enough to buy or borrow the book.

Group Biographies

Holroyd said group biographies were popular; but he thought all biography was in a sense “group” because writing about a person inevitably brought in those others with whom they had connections/entaglements – people don’t live in a vacuum. He thought creative (which he called re-creative) non-fiction had been affected by TV treatment of history – on TV there was lots of social history, but biography was superficial. There was more interest in telling the stories of disadvantaged groups – a “biography of redress” – a sort of doing them justice in retrospect. Wendy Moffat said that people would always be interested in narratives of people’s lives, because they were looking for narratives that would tell them more about human nature and their own identity, but it was important to bear in mind what today’s younger reader does not understand about the past, and that the young expect the visual and the multimedia/electronic. Lives were being fully self-documented (facebook, twitter, digital photography, deposited papers of politicians etc) and future biographers would be grappling with why the subject kept all that he/she did, and how it showed/explained the subject’s view of him/herself.

Saunders commented that the long biographical project seemed to have migrated from the “professional biographer”+ publisher partnership to academe – maybe because the “publisher’s sub” had dried up, the “research biographer” had an academic income and could research/produce the biography in their research and vacation time. However, academics are now under pressure to accommodate shorter research cycles and more publications, so big multi-volume works will be out of favour.

Biography is not a young person’s genre

Moffat said that biography is not a young person’s genre, and she couldn’t have been a biographer without tenure. You needed to have picked up a lot of life-experiences of your own, and have developed a nose for all sorts of odds and sods of detail that aren’t central to a life’s focus but form the content that will stick in the reader’s mind. You had to be able to learn about everything your subjects knew. Holroyd agreed, and added that you needed to have developed confidence in your own original points of view and your own language.

Moffat and Bakewell both found that literary critics and philosophers were wary of biography, as being reductionist – the totality of a subject’s ideas/writing being explained in terms of their life-experiences. They hadn’t set out to be reductionist, but were aware of these prejudices.

Growth in ‘Memoir’

Saunders suggested two further trends: if you go to conferences, about half the life-writers are actually writing (or proposing to) on their family; also, the memoir boom. Moffat agreed – the latter is huge in the US, and they have become formulaic and conventionally in the “victimhood” form. She reckoned the combination likely to attract readers was a group biography, in a slice of time, with a strong geographic grounding.

Bakewell noted a further trend to include the biographer’s quest in the biography that becomes about the author’s life experience too and can unbalance the work. A biography shouldn’t be about the author’s curiosity. Moffat said she’d thought of writing a book about how she wrote a biography – and was told by her publisher (with a sigh) that all biographers want to do that. She said there are good examples of the way to do it – mentioned Richard Holmes’ Footsteps.

To Be Continued – Part 2 – Special Issues


One Response to New Life in Life Writing: a discussion held at Senate House on 15 May 2013

  1. Tracey Messenger

    Thanks for this fulsome report of the evening, Annie. Sounds like it was very worthwhile. I was interested/amused to read that ‘Biography is not a young person’s genre’. Do others agree?

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