Exactly 30 years ago, Michael Holroyd published the first volume of his life of Lytton Strachey. It helped usher in a new era for biography. Candid about sex and money but conscientious over sources, aspiring to the novelist's flair and the historian's care, the post-Holroyd life steered a course between hagiography and hatchet-job. Its criteria quickly became the yardsticks of the trade.

A generation on, how far has the art progressed? The question recurred over the summer as I (with two other judges) read the books submitted to this year's Whitbread award for biography. This week, the panel's shortlist emerged and the winner will be revealed on 6 January. In alphabetical order, our five shortlisted titles are: Jessica Douglas-Home's Violet: the life and loves of Violet Gordon Woodhouse (Harvill); Graham Robb's Victor Hugo (Picador); Kate Summerscale's The Queen of Whale Cay (Fourth Estate); Stella Tillyard's Citizen Lord: Edward Fitzgerald 1763-1798 (Chatto & Windus); Jenny Uglow's Hogarth: a life and a world (Faber).

The Iron Law of Prizes states that judges, if let loose in print, will trash the sorry halfwits whose scribblings they had the mischance to endure. Not this one. Biography, like character-acting, persists as a peculiarly British forte. Both thrive in a culture that values discretion but paradoxically hankers for openness; that enjoys keeping secrets and telling them.

As for the Holroyd formula, it still succeeds, even though - especially with second-division names - it can taste too much like the mixture before. Yet if you dare revisit a first-rank career - an Austen or a Chekhov - dogged sleuthing and pacy narration can't replace the need to present well-loved work in fresh ways. And academic discoveries that shed new light on old giants - a Newton or a Freud - have unleashed a wave of readable revisionism that draws (perhaps too much) on others' breakthroughs.

It simply isn't true, though, that all the fascinating figures have been done; the shortlist shows that. Meanwhile, plenty of the famous dead languish in dated doorstops; a biographical magician can liberate them. The genre can still thrill when life, work and a broader social history come together in perfect balance. Above all, biography - for all its debts to scholarship - remains a narrative art that stands or falls by the force of its prose, whether your subject needs 800 fat pages or 200 thin ones. Small can be beautiful.

I had one regret. Several promising titles blended biography, memoir and criticism into a sort of hybrid travelogue. These mixed-bags now flourish as never before, but seem incommensurable with orthodox biography. They deserve an award of their own: how about the Footsteps Prize, in honour of Richard Holmes, who pioneered this route?