Arifa Akbar: A new age for the literary biography, without yesterday's men of action

The Week In Books

DJ Taylor has set in stone his intention never to write another literary biography again. Why? Because all the great men of action of the early 20th century are dead – the Waughs, Audens, Isherwoods and Orwells – and their biographies have been written several times over. Despite Taylor's own exemplary track record in the field – he won the Whitbread prize for his biography on George Orwell in 2003, and he is a now judging best biography for 2012's Costa Prize – he is voicing a legitimate and well-rehearsed refrain on the death of the literary biography.

Certainly, biographies are not as profitable as they once were, and there is that other great difficulty in our (almost) taboo-free times for a genre that relies on the divulging of secrets and revelation. Which writer will be revealed as a closet homosexual or spy by tomorrow's biographers? More often than not, today's writers disclose the secrets they might have taken to their graves a few generations ago – Günter Grass on his Waffen-SS days, Salman Rushdie on his fugitive life as 'Joseph Anton' during his fatwa years. Edna O'Brien hinted that she wrote her recent memoir to get in with the truth before others got in with a paler version of it. So grand revelation is coming to us in autobiography, and not biographical form.

Taylor also points out that the lives of our contemporary writers would hardly make for exciting reading: "The modern novelist merely takes his A-levels, studies creative writing somewhere and then sits down to begin a lifetime at his or her desk. It is no disparagement of such modern grandees as Ian McEwan or William Boyd to wonder what, exactly, you would put in their biographies".

Put that way, the future does seem bleak for the literary biography. But then again, I am not sure that we read biographies for revelation alone or even for 'action' in the 20th century sense. Neither can we be sure that uninteresting lives necessarily make for uninteresting biographies. Some of the most fascinating biographies of our times have drawn out the inner dramas of seemingly dull, desk-bound writers – Philip Larkin's librarian's existence made for a fantastic biography by Andrew Motion. The contemporary biographer's skill, I think, comes from the charting of the soul, in the absence of wars and writers' double lives as spies. Claire Tomalin showed us that gripping narratives are not always built out of gripping biographical arcs with her life of Charles Dickens.

What is even more defining for literary biographies is the new ways in which memorable material is being stored. These will, I think, reshape our tastes and expectations for biography. Where letters have been a vital source for literary biographers, with all their ostentatious revelation and pronouncement, the smaller, casual intimacies of emails, which are increasingly being donated to public archives – Harold Pinter's and Wendy Cope's to the British Library – will offer insights that might, accidentally, be even more enlightening than a stash of letters can be.

Next year, Faber will publish a collection of letters between Paul Auster and JM Coetzee, in which we will be able to read both sides of the conversation when, so often, letters only give us one half of the story. With emails, the reply is always preserved with the original, which helps the biography to get a fuller picture. Rachel Foss, the BL's lead curator of modern literature manuscripts, says that Cope's 40,000 emails include her Amazon book choices, letters to the council and her views on people's poems. This jumble of the incidental, mundane and illuminating could make for a fascinating biography. Perhaps the preservation work Ms Foss is involved with will give rise to a literary biography not about the 20th century's 'men of action' but about the minds of 21st century men and women of letters.

A literary prize and an unsung PR hero

Andrew Kidd, the literary agent who launched a new literature prize in a blaze of (other people's) outrage at 2011's Man Booker prize, has secured sponsorship for a £40,000 annual prize. It's a coup, given our cash-poor times (the former Orange prize has also been looking). How did he do it? Well, a diligent PR executive called Fiona McMorrough found the sponsor and brought them to Mr Kidd's door. Needless to say, McMorrough will jointly be doing the PR for the prize when it reveals its branded name next year.

New manners for future bloggers

Jean Seaton, director of the Orwell Prize, has confirmed that the annual award will not do away with its currently suspended 'best blogger' category. Professor Seaton says while it is important to recognise those bloggers whose voices might not otherwise be heard, they must be distinguished from those who might fall under Lord Levenson's online 'Wild West'. "We want to protect this non-official voice of the blogger who tells us things we would otherwise not know but we can't go on as we are."

In that spirit, the prize is working on a new category for 'online and perhaps self-published' work. "We want to celebrate what is good in the online world, when blogging has changed so much since we started. We need some agreed manners as well " so the prize can be protected from the legal minefields inherent in an unregulated Internet.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week