Leading Article: An unhealthy market in sensational lives

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The Independent Online
What makes an author, according to the eminent academic George Steiner, is the desire not so much for contemporary fame as posthumous glory - to leave behind printed words that will live again in the eye and mind of a future reader. The poets of old hankered after a place on Parnassus; their writing was their passport to immortality. What lifts the vision of a great artist is an eye that sees not just a contemporary subject but also contains posterity's glance. But after the past week, maybe we need to think a little more about the mechanisms by which writers and artists "live on".

We are living through a biography boom and it has been a busy few days for what can only be called biographical news. Lord Runcie of St Albans is, after all, still alive, though he has implied since his biography's publication he wishes he were dead - a message relentlessly and rather unpleasantly rammed home by the newspaper that bought up the book. The former archbishop could, easily enough, have given an interview on the radio containing his various bon mots about the heir to the throne and clergymen of a gay disposition. Instead his biographer has been the conduit. Robert Runcie thus becomes Humphrey Carpenter's Robert Runcie and we are left wondering whether the correspondence between the two is perfect.

Lord Runcie is in a position to contradict his biographer though if he does he runs the risk of denying what Mr Carpenter wisely had him previously commit to tape. Other subjects are not so fortunate. Some, like Ben Pimlott's Queen (coming shortly) just never reply. Others are merely dead. Dead subjects are certainly safer, since they are beyond the reach of George Carman QC. About, say, Buddy Holly, Philip Norman can effectively say what he likes. But what he has to do - in the intensely competitive biography stakes - is come up with something that arrests attention. That, given modern tastes, usually means sexual deviation or excess.

So a danger in the rise of biography as a literary form which sells itself by sensation is that lives become badly distorted by the requirements of the literary market: what happens in bedrooms, or in notebooks, is given too much weight, what happens elsewhere too little. Post-Freudian biography runs a constant risk of priapism. Fine artists, writers, politicians, adventurers have their sexual lives subjected to hyperventilating prose. Often, when the biographer is not guilty, the publicity machine around the book is. Thus Roy Jenkins's admirable recent biography of Gladstone is helpfully distinguished in the market from HG Matthews's recent life by "stories" about the great man's nocturnal visits.

There are other worries about the public's apparently insatiable appetite for written lives. If biography represents a kind of literary reflection of the triumph of individualism as a political philosophy it is as suspect a version of historical truth as untrammelled individualism is in our economic and social lives. Buddy Holly may be a pop music innovator whose death gave him a special aura but he is hardly comprehensible outwith the song-writing and recording industry as it was in the late 1950s; raising him to romantic superhero risks belittling the army of precursors without whom that would not have been the day.

The modern cult of biography may be, as some have suggested, a specific and necessary reaction against movements in academia - the dry deconstructionists, unreadable fourth-generation Marxists and such who would scrub and unpick literary texts as if their authors had no real being or intentions or underpants.

But could it be that too much biography is bad for us? Yes, if it means that reading the easy, gossipy life becomes a substitute for reading the works, or if difficult, fascinating men and women are evicted from their contexts and turned into characters in ersatz novels.

Biography is unhealthy too to the extent that it feeds British nostalgia, sacrificing achievement and action in the here and now for contemplation of the past. The cult of biography may encourage a "dwarves on the shoulders of giants" mentality in which we demean and downsize our expectations and aspirations, believing that there are no longer any Greats. John Major is, true, no Peel and Paddy Ashdown's relationship to William Ewart Gladstone is somewhat distant. It is, however, an invalid conclusion that we live in an age of political, artistic and literary pygmies. Some of those modern politicians are doubtless even now polishing their notes and diaries with a view to helping the biographical scavengers ever on the look-out for a good, untold life. Perhaps one day, our children will troop out to buy the third blockbusting life of Damien Hirst, or the new line on that endlessly fascinating fin de siecle giant, Salman Rushdie.

It may be that biography is essentially a secondary, Silver Age kind of writing, inherently lesser than fiction, poetry, history or philosophy. But in the end, the market rules here as everywhere else. And for all the drawbacks of the biography boom, it has some cheering and redeeming features. It may draw millions into the primary texts, proceeding from reading about Virginia Woolf's sex life to reading Virginia Woolf's books. It fills papers with gossip that hurts less - mostly - than investigative muck-raking in living lives. And it gives us a cast of characters, constantly revised, that add up to a huge extended national family. If this is a vice, there are worse ones.