A novel approach to the story of a lifetime, and vice versa

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YOU CAN hardly turn on the radio at the moment without hearing someone say that people are buying biographies rather than novels nowadays.

I am exaggerating, of course. You hear people say lots of other things on the radio. The other day I heard Melvyn Bragg say that there was a bit more to Tony Blair than image. Later, I heard someone quite different say that the rain was going to clear from the south gradually. And after that I heard someone say that Nigel Pargetter had been locked up half the night in a phone box during his stag party, none of which has anything to do with the state of modern literature.

Nevertheless, you often hear people on the radio say that people are turning more and more to biography than the novel. The reasoning seems to be that modern novels don't give us a gripping story any more, or big characters, and that to find them you have to turn to biographies, where the sinister figure of Lord Mountbatten or the baffling figure of Graham Greene loom larger than the heroes of any Booker hopeful.

Nobody is writing books like Greene's any more, but at least they are still writing lives like Greene's, that's the feeling. And indeed, if you look at the current issue of the estimable Literary Review, you can't help noticing that there are more reviews in the biography section than the fiction section, as if demand and supply are keeping pace with each other.

(It's odd that novels are being dismissed at a time when any tennis player, fashion model or stand-up comedian worth their salt is trying their hand at their first novel. Or maybe it's not. Maybe people are feeling now that novels are things you write, not read. That if Naomi Campbell thinks it is worth writing a novel, it can't be worth reading, and that if Baddiel and Newman write novels, it's only so that Newman and Baddiel will have something by their chums to read. The way things are going, footballers will be writing novels. Maybe Terry Venables will be the first to burst into print. No, hold on, Terry Venables has already burst into print. Was not the Hazell series of crime thrillers co-written by him and Gordon Williams many years ago? Yes, it was. He was way before his time . . .)

What surprises me is that nobody has applied Darwinian theory to all this. If you believe in the theory of evolution, you must believe that things evolve and adapt in self-protection. Therefore, you would expect the novel to change to meet the threat from the biography. Therefore, you might expect the novel, in self-defence, to start becoming more like the art of biography.

And if you look around, this is precisely what you find.

I was listening to Christopher Bigsby interviewing Joseph Heller about the latter's new, and last, novel, Closing Time.

There is a lot of autobiographical detail in your novel, said Bigsby.

Yes, said the great man. I made a deliberate decision to include a lot of autobiographical stuff about my youth in Coney Island.

Another example? Ray Davies, leader of the Kinks, has just brought out the story of his life. It is, by and large, a chronological tale of his youth and career in the music industry. It is subtitled, rather deftly, an 'unauthorised autobiography'. But it takes the form of a novel, set in the future, when the aged Davies is interviewed by a young pipsqueak about the great days of pop.

Another example? Allan Massie's latest novel, The Ragged Lion, tells the story of Sir Walter Scott's last, tired years. It is called a 'novel' on the cover. But it is told by Sir Walter himself, and to engineer this, Massie pretends that he has found a copy of Scott's very own missing, late-

flowering, autobiography, which Massie reprints here.

In other words, Joseph Heller is putting unused bits of his life into his latest novel to avoid wasting them. Ray Davies is putting the whole of his life into a novel. Allan Massie is pretending to be Sir Walter Scott telling his own life story.

What is going on here?

I'll tell you what is going on here. The novel is mutating into the biography, or vice versa, and pretty soon you are going to hear someone on radio saying that the biography is mutating into the novel, or vice versa, and you are going to hear someone else saying 'Yes, pure Darwinian process at work,' and I shall leap up and say: 'You read it here first]'