Reinventing The Bio

by Dish Staff

Stuart Kelly wonders what would happen if biographers were as formally innovative as novelists:

There have been various attempts at experimental biographies. Although it’s an “academic” book, Samuel Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare’s Lives, published in 1970, is remarkable: a life told through attempts to tell the life, a source book for how legends arise and myths solidify into facts. More recently, Jonathan Coe’s Like a Fiery Elephant, about the avant-garde novelist BS Johnson, deploys a range of tricks – meandering footnotes, choruses of comments, an intrusive and sometimes indolent narrator – which would be recognizable to readers of the novels of BS Johnson. It is a fine example of form being determined by the subject itself.

He goes on to argue that “for literary biography to survive as a genre, it ought to take its lead from literature and go even further”:

The decline of written diaries and paper correspondence … means that future biographers may have to either resign themselves to lost sources, or spend hours with computer boffins recapturing every email, tweet and keystroke from Salman Rushdie’s iPhones and laptops: a kind of archaeology which might reveal nothing more than a penchant for Patience. But a life told innovatively and imaginatively holds out a lifeline to the form. I’ve read biographies of Dickens by John Forster and Peter Ackroyd, Claire Tomalin and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, GK Chesterton and Edgar Johnson. I know the story. But I’d love to hear how Ali Smith or Jonathan Franzen might tell it.