A Week in Books: The future of life-writing

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The Independent Culture

Since the 1960s, blockbuster cultural biographies have become as much of a world-beating British speciality as fruity character-acting or bizarre TV sitcoms.

Since the 1960s, blockbuster cultural biographies have become as much of a world-beating British speciality as fruity character-acting or bizarre TV sitcoms. This flair for erudite but colourful cradle-to-grave tales has stretched beyond these shores to take in foreign titans too - as in Hilary Spurling's double-decker portrait of Matisse. In the hands of a few virtuosi, these epic narratives of the pioneers in literature, art, music, drama or science have themselves become works of the imagination as well as the intellect.

Critics complain that reading a biography acts as a substitute for encountering the work, the life standing in the shadow of the art. Sometimes, it does; but maybe it should? Jonathan Coe's free-form life of B S Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant, is arguably a finer book than any of its subject's patience-testing fictional experiments. Published last year, Coe's self-interrogating work felt like the end of a grand, but tired, tradition. So, in less happy fashion, did the drift of Norman Sherry's 27-year pursuit of Graham Greene into pedantic minutiae, with the final volume in his exhaustive trilogy. But where did that tradition start?

Many toilers in the life-writing mills would pick Michael Holroyd's two-volume biography of Lytton Strachey (1967-68) as the book of genesis. Holroyd perfected a modern style of narration that blended long-haul research with storytelling panache, emotional empathy, complex design and - of course - all the thrilling frankness about sex and family that the age now required. He raised British biography from its post-Victorian grave. Further mammoth resurrections of his own ensued, with two bulky volumes on Augustus John and a whopping four on Bernard Shaw. You might even see these glittering slabs as the flagstones that paved the way for Bohemian views and values to enter bourgeois British life.

Those labours of love have just won Holroyd - 70 this year - a suitably heavyweight reward. Yesterday, he received the £40,000 David Cohen Prize, a biennial honour for career achievement previously granted only to novelists, dramatists and poets. Deservedly, the great biographer has grabbed some limelight of his own. But shortly, I suspect, the curtain will fall on his vocation.

Most major publishers now recoil from the idea of Holroyd-size biographies. Whatever their virtues, they have a reputation as financial black holes into which big advances will vanish without trace. Their audience, it's thought, have had their fill and crave no more biographical blow-outs. Publishers also believe that all really important characters have been "done"; and they detect, or fear, a growing hunger for literary fast-food.

So the future of life-writing may lie in the now-ubiquitous family memoir, in the post-Chatwin hybrid of memoir and quest, in the history of a group (brilliantly achieved in Jenny Uglow's The Lunar Men), or else in the close-up, Wittgenstein's Poker-style episode of love, hate and conflict among the greats. Good biographical writing will survive more in sprints or leaps than marathons.

Holroyd himself has followed these trends. In 1999, he published his charmingly off-the-wall family story, Basil Street Blues. Last year saw his delightful slice of fragmentary, post-modern life-writing, Mosaic. In any case, there was always something a little paradoxical about what he so expertly did. With Strachey, John and Shaw, he took mercurial, shape-shifting figures and sealed them into a row of awesome monuments. Wild eccentricity and fitful genius found their epitaph writ not in water (as Keats hoped) but in granite.

These monuments will endure, as they should. And their admirers will continue to think it strange that the cultural gravediggers of the Victorian age should enjoy a lasting memorial in non-fiction versions of great 19th-century novels.