Is the biography dying? I guess this is asking from the point of view of someone who cares about literary worth, because, numbers-wise, I’ve never seen so many of those damn things crawling round the shelves, like lice on a gradeschooler’s head, so they must be selling. And about as hard to get rid of. So the biography isn’t dying, it’s just going through a mid-life crisis and buying the literary version of a Mazda Miata.
Nigel Hamilton opens his new primer How to Do Biography (Harvard) with the bold boast that we are living in “a golden age” of life writing. Really, he should know better. To anyone who reads, reviews or writes on the subject, such confidence is baffling. (Hamilton, a Briton, lives mainly in the States, which may account for his rosy myopia.) Seen close up, and with an eye to proper detail, biography appears in rather a bad way. “Crisis” would probably be putting it too strongly, not least because it suggests a certain convulsive energy. “Sclerosis” might be nearer.
Sales, it’s true, are still good, though showing signs of softening. According to Nielsen BookScan, literary biography reached an all-time high in 2005, but has since started to fall. General arts biographies are also down. However, to give an idea of how the non-fiction market as a whole has recently been bent out of shape, it’s worth noting the exponential leap in celebrity memoir. Thus Katie Price has managed to shift 335,649 hardback copies of her life story Being Jordan, despite her jaunty admission that someone else wrote it. Meanwhile, Hilary Spurling’s Costa-winning Matisse the Master, surely one of the best biographies of the decade, has lifetime hardback sales of just 12,451.However, it is when you look at the quality of work produced rather than the number of books sold that you start to fear for the health of a genre that not only predates the novel by centuries (think of Plutarch’s Lives), but holds peculiarly British credentials.