The popularity of what is known as 'literary biography' suggests that there is a large audience eager to read about literature, but one that is not to be persuaded that the works of their favourite authors can be understood only in the detailed historical context in which they were produced, or only in reference to some elaborate theory of writing or reading, or only in comparison with the work of dozens of other writers whose names are known only to professional scholars. If this is true, however, it does not do much to resolve the paradox of modern literary biography. Only famous writers attract biographies, writers who are famous because their writings are. But the more space a literary biographer devotes to discussing an author's writing, the less commercial the biography will seem to be, to those who decide which books to publish and push. It looks as though the word is out that readers will happily read about famous writers as long as they don't have to be troubled much about what they wrote. 'Literary biography' has come a long way from the book which supposedly gave it its name, Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, which he subtitled Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions.
LRB 2 November 2000 | PDF Download