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.

Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower