David Blackburn

The declining years of biography

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It is more than 30 years since Mark Amory declared biography dead, when he published his edition of Evelyn Waugh’s letters. Despite the best efforts of Victoria Glendinning (notably on Trollope) and Claire Tomalin (on Pepys and many others) there has been no grand critical resurrection since, until this year and the announcement of the shortlist for the Costa Awards. Sarah Bakewell’s life of Montaigne has received the recognition of which Spectator reviewers Philip Hensher and David Sexton believed it worthy.

However, every silver lining has its cloud: the judges chose only 3 biographies when they could have chosen 4, a decision that is being seen as a statement to support the fashionable view that publishers are growing uninterested in ‘serious biography’ as a genre. The Guardian reports:

‘Trollope biographer Victoria Glendinning told the Observer on Sunday that she was having to self-finance her research on her next subject, Sir Stamford Raffles. Bakewell said she was aware of this but was "positive and optimistic". She added: "My own experience is very good but I also teach and some of my students have had fantastic success, they've done really well. It shows that if a story is good and original then it will find its market. Nobody is denying that things are difficult at the moment, they are for everyone, but I'm quite positive and optimistic.”’

Sure, traditional publishers are lame in the new galloping market. But if Glendinning couldn’t find a modicum of help for so divisive (and therefore marketable) a subject as Raffles of Singapore then something must be up.            

In other news, the Costa’s poetry category will see a face-off between Sam Willetts, a 48-year-old former heroin addict and star graduate of Wadham College Oxofrd, and his publisher, Cape’s Robin Robertson, the very apogee of respectability.