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Literary lifers: the good, the bad and the nosey

Are literary biographers driven by envy? Tonight's Bookmark suggests life-writing is fuelled by corrupt impulses. Peter Parker disagrees
During Lifers, Roy Ackerman's BBC2 Bookmark film, sub-titled "The Rise and Rise of the Literary Biographer", there is a shot of a man pounding along a road. "Before I begin work," Peter Whitmer confides, "the very first thing, I put on my Reeboks, I go out my back door, and while I'm climbing the mountain I think about my characters I'm writing about as a biographer. I come back, sit down with a cup of black coffee and a slice of bread and go to it."

I cannot say that this is how I face the day "as a biographer", and I'd be surpised if it was a regime many of my colleagues would recognise. But then Whitmer lives in America, where it is fondly believed that beating the competition is merely a matter of proper training.

Whitmer was one of three people racing to write biographies of the cult journalist Hunter S Thompson in 1993. Despite his Reeboks, however, he was outmanoeuvred by the tough and wily E Jean Carroll, who simply moved in with Thompson, notebook at the ready. Whitmer and the third biographer, Paul Perry, prove ungallant in defeat. "The difference between E Jean and me is that I did most of my interviewing standing up," says Perry. "It was a very good autobiography of E Jean Carroll," says Whitmer, "If anyone's interested in that."

These three writers clearly make good copy, but they are unusual representatives of "the literary biographer". Whitmer, now a psychologist, was formerly "drummer for the hippie surfing pop group, The Turtles"; Perry "has made millions writing airport books about near-death experiences"; and Carroll is "an Esquire columnist and chat-show host". Rather different track records from those of, say, Ian Hamilton, Richard Holmes and Anne Stevenson, who also appear in the programme.

Lifers is an instantly recognisable Bookmark product: the usual faces, the usual stories, the usual staged telephone conversations, the usual jazz soundtrack. It is not that the programme is uninteresting, merely that it is desperately formulaic. Furthermore, the standard policy of editing out those who interview participants means that people are allowed to pontificate unchallenged. Germaine Greer, a long-serving opponent of biography, now finds herself the subject of one, and is filmed bemoaning the fact in a vegetable patch. ("I've just wrenched that poor little bean out of the ground," she says with evident empathy.) When she complains that her biographer might upset her mother, no one asks whether poor old Mum was upset by Greer's own ruthless slice of family biography, Daddy We Hardly Knew You; when she displays her extensive and well-ordered personal archive, no one asks who or what it is for; when she compares biography with methods of torture employed by the Koreans, no one says, "Come off it, Germaine!". Similarly, no one challenges Al Alvarez, a notably pompous denouncer of biography whose "study of suicide", The Savage God, opened with what some people regarded as an exploitative memoir of Sylvia Plath. (Admittedly, the programme would have been on difficult ground here, since it includes a startlingly tasteless dramatisation of Plath's last moments, ending with the detached knob from a gas cooker rolling in front of a pile of books about her.)

The same tired old theories are served up. People write biographies because their own lives are "totally uninteresting", says Edmund White. The author of a massive volume on Genet, he should know. And yet now White finds himself the subject of three biographies-in-progress, so presumably - even if he is no Lytton Strachey - his life must be of some interest to someone. Scowling from a sofa, Martin Amis declares that: "Any biographer is likely to be some sort of artist manque. It's second or third best to what you want to be" - i.e. someone like Martin Amis, presumably, not an aspiration I've ever encountered among biographers (or anyone else). For Amis, biography seems a poor subititute for cosying up to the great: "When you finish a book written by a contemporary that you love, you want to ring the writer up, you want to have a drink with the writer."

What actually drives most literary biographers is not envy, feelings of inferiority, or thwarted creativity, but sheer curiosity - a fascination with other people's lives that's similar to the impulse that leads others to write and read fiction. Eponymously inquisitive myself, I am always astonished by the protestations of those who claim not to want to read about the lives of those they admire. Never mind whether or not the life sheds light on the work - I have never understood how it could not, while remaining equally convinced that the work should stand or fall in isolation from its creator: what interests us is human nature.

That said, one occasionally shares with Ian Hamilton a feeling that there is an "essential impropriety" about the biographer's trade. Even though my subjects (J. R. Ackerley and Christopher Isherwood) are safely dead, a number of their friends, relations and relicts - not to mention a host of casual, though highly intimate acquaintances - are not, and somehow have to be incorporated in the story.

A more interesting aspect of biography than the rivalries and lawsuits rehearsed in Lifers would be methodology - by which I mean seduction, prevarication, bullying and deceit. I exaggerate, of course; though it may seem hard to believe, most literary biographers do have scruples. In order to discover information, however, it is sometimes necessary to set aside the codes by which you normally conduct your life. Although just about able to restrain myself from reading other people's letters and diaries when off duty, in libraries and archives I have occasionally and inadvertently been given or happened upon papers not intended for my eyes. One writer told me of the time be was handed the personnel file of a former employee of the BBC. He foolishly took a lunch break before inspecting this booty. When he returned it had vanished - a cautionary tale I have carried with me ever since. I once came across a misfiled cache of letters, which I hastily read before handing them over to their owner." I don't think these are supposed to be here," I said, adopting the expression of the Most Honourable Boy in the School. "I assume you read those letters," he remarked casually a few days later. I hadn't fooled him for a minute.

I have also gone to interview people hoping to trick them into revealing things that I supect but need to confirm. It doesn't always work. I couldn't get one very distinguished British acting knight to confirm that he had enjoyed a brief fling with Ackerley in the 1920s, though he freely admitted to one with Godfrey Winn (a rather more shaming confession, by any standards). Despite my probing, a key figure in Isherwood's life is currently holding out on me about a highly significant episode he unwisely confided to others, who immediately blabbed to me. Unwilling to betray my sources (both of whom, uneasily valiant for truth, spoke to me "off the record"), I must bide my time.

For most of us there remain limits to what we will do in order to acquire information. E Jean Carroll insists that she did not "scronge" Hunter Thompson, but implies that this was a question of health risks rather than biographical ethics. No one has ever thrust themselves at me in exchange for information, alas, but one biographer told me that not only he but also his partner were obliged to pop into bed with an elderly gentleman before he would talk. I subsequently read his Acknowledgements page ("...beyond the call of duty...") very carefully.

A genuinely revealing and lively programmecould be made by following a single biographer in his or her quest, for the job has many of the elements of a thriller or a black comedy. But who would volunteer? As James Atlas, who has spent a decade stalking Saul Bellow, puts it: "I feel for him at times. It must be a fearful experience to be confronted by a biographer. I wouldn't want my biography written."