Tuesday, 3 February 2009

The challenges for a modern biographer

Last Friday I went to a talk at the East Sheen Library, where Lydia Syson was in conversation with biographer Anne Sebba, author of Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother. I was very pleased by the turn out, especially considering that it was a mid-afternoon event.

Even more interesting than the talk itself, which focused on the role and responsibility of the modern biographer, was my chat with Anne during the tea break. Anne confided her worries about the current state of historical biographies, with fewer books being commissioned by publishers and fewer and fewer readers. The advent of ready-at-your-fingertips information on the web – Wikipedia leading the way – as well as the ever-growing interest in celebrity biographies, has resulted in a constant decline in more serious general-interest publications.

Another big problem is the sheer amount of information that modern biographers have to go through. For a biographer studying authors such as Pinter or Updike, for instance, traditional letters, diary entries and newspaper articles are no longer enough: radio and TV appearances, emails and even blogs, just to give a few examples, have to be taken into consideration to retrace the author’s life with accuracy. Anne mentioned, during her talk, that the British Library’s very concept of cataloguing is going through a complete overhaul as they face the mammoth task of storing this multi-platformed avalanche of information.

Historical and literary biographies have traditionally been very popular in the English world – whereas in European countries such as Italy or France this genre is virtually non-existent. This may in fact reflect the attitudes of British people, who are notoriously jealous of their own privacy, but at the same time seem to be incredibly nosy about the life of others.


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