It is within the arena of specifically literary life-writing that the traditional narrative form of “cradle to grave” or “womb to tomb” is in a state of considerable uncertainty, if not, as some would say, terminal decline. We sensed a straw in the wind at the dinner for the award of the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2004. One of the judges sidled up and said that John Clare: A Biography was a magnificent piece of research and writing, but it was insuffi- ciently experimental in form. The prize had to reward innovation, it could not be awarded to yet another traditional “doorstopper” like the Berlioz and Pushkin biographies that had won in previous years. And indeed the biographical enterprises that have won prizes and plaudits in this century have been those unafraid to take risks. James Shapiro’s 1599 approaches Shakespeare by way of a single year, Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth refracts an entire life through a single day (the one when William Wordsworth got married and left his sister behind). For 50 years, would- be biographers of Ireland’s greatest novelist cowered in the shadow of Richard Ellmann’s mighty James Joyce, but now the prestigious Costa Biography Prize has been awarded to a graphic novel — the genre that used to be known as the comic — about Joyce’s relationship with his daughter Lucia.
Thursday, March 28, 2013
… Literary Biography is on Life Support | Standpoint.