These days it seems like any old celebrity can get a book deal to write their autobiography (as Eva Wiseman, assistant editor of Observer Woman magazine, put it recently, ‘I’m a celebrity – get me on the bookshelf’) but if they want it to become a bestseller, they really have to come up with an attention grabbing scandal: abuse, incest, shoplifting – that’ll do for starters. Now, even literary biographies are getting in on the act. In the last few months alone, a series of heavyweight books has revealed that William Golding despised both himself and Lord of the Flies, Diaghilev was a ‘sexual predator’ and Alison Uttley hated ‘The Blyton’. As Kathryn Hughes remarked in her review of the Uttley biography ‘whether we really benefit from learning that the creator of Little Grey Rabbit was actually a prize cow is another matter.’
I’m not sure what I think about this. For me, biographies ought to reveal information of a deeply personal nature – why else would I take the trouble to read them? I’m not interested in a glossy skate across the surface of someone’s life; I am interested in trying to put together the bits where the work came from in the first place – that doesn’t mean that they have to be prurient. Recently, I read Hermione Lee’s Biography: A Very Short Introduction, published earlier this year, which looks at what literary biographies do and how they work. She is fascinating on the ‘fear and loathing’ that revelatory biographies can inspire in both the reader and the subject. She cites Justin Kaplan, the American author of biographies of Twain and Whitman amongst others, who maintained that ‘by current standards, biographies without voyeuristic, erotic thrills are like ballpark hot dogs without mustard’ (he was referring specifically to Kitty Kelley’s sensational 1991 book on Nancy Reagan – which he said was ‘essentially a drive-by shooting’) and Germaine Greer, who described biographers of living writers as ‘the intellectual equivalents of flesh-eating bacterium’.
To be incredibly topical; Tiger Woods’ statement concerning the current media blitz he is engulfed in is a salutary insight into what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a ‘drive-by shooting’. It includes the following: ‘No matter how intense curiosity about public figures can be, there is an important and deep principle at stake which is the right to some simple, human measure of privacy. Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn’t have to mean public confessions.’
The problem is, that in the celebrity-eating bacterium age in which we live, personal sins do indeed seem to equal public confessions. I have to admit that I am now more interested in Tiger Woods than I was before he was involved in a ‘single vehicle car crash’ because he has inadvertently revealed himself to be a rather more complex and sympathetic character. Since there is no such thing as a neutral biographical narrative, what I long to read is a revelatory life story written by a considerate and compassionate author.