Hagiography as Biography: Turning Writers into Saints

Tim Parks wonders why biographies of writers flirt with hagiograpy, why they are so blind to their subjects’ faults:

With only the rarest of exceptions…each author is presented as simply the most gifted and well-meaning of writers, while their behavior, however problematic and possibly outrageous…is invariably described in a flattering light…special pleading is everywhere evident, as if biographers were afraid that the work might be diminished by a life that was less than noble or not essentially directed toward a lofty cause.

[B]iographers apparently feel a need to depict their subjects as especially admirable human beings, something that in the end makes their lives less rather than more interesting and harder rather than easier to relate to their writing. It is so much clearer why the books were written and why they had to be the way they are if the life is given without this constant positive spin.

[O]ne can only assume that they are satisfying a general need to reinforce a positive conception of narrative art, thus bolstering the self-esteem of readers, and even more of critics and biographers, who in writing about literature are likewise contributing to the very same good causes.

The habit of imagining the writer as more well-meaning than he or she probably was is even more curious when we turn to academe. Usually hostile to any notion that knowledge of a writer’s life illuminates his work—“Biographical Fallacy!” one professor of mine would thunder—academic critics nevertheless tend to assume that the author is a solemn soul devoted to profound aesthetic enquiries and invariably progressive narratives. [emphasis added]

I would have thought the answer to Parks’ puzzlement was staring him right in the face (he flirts with it above in the line emphasized) . Biographies of writers are written by, er, writers. To write quasi-hagiography rather than biography, to suggest that the personal and the artistic can be so divorced is to also give oneself a free pass: judge me on my writing, and my writing alone.  Here, the personal is not treated as political; instead, it becomes an autonomous sphere, one whose influences on a  writer’s writing are not permitted to be viewed and whose consideration is not allowed to enter into any judgment of the writing, now viewed as an act radically divorced from the life that led to it.  Writers are not embedded in their actions and circumstances and relationships; they are merely conduits for the expression of their art, which they bring to life by dint of their unstinting labors.

This is an exalted view to hold of others; it becomes even more pleasurable to profess such views when they lead to an exalted vision of oneself. Writing quasi-hagiographies of writers is then best understood as equal parts self-glorification and anticipatory protection of oneself against future critiques. To suggest the writer is essentially noble and virtuous despite well-known personal failings is to act to ensure a similar view of one’s own life. It is an act of writerly solidarity, an insurance policy taken out against any criticism that peeks under the hood.

6 thoughts on “Hagiography as Biography: Turning Writers into Saints

  1. On the other hand there are enough instances of literary biographies where the biographer is clearly out of sympathy with his or her subject. I haven’t read it, but Lawrence Thompson’s biography of Robert Frost is a notorious character assassination, and of the biographies I have read I can think of Andrew Motion’s Larkin, the biographies of Byron by Benita Eisler and Phyllis Grosskurth respectively, James Atlas’s Bellow, Peter Parker’s Isherwood, AN Wilson’s life of Tolstoy. In some cases the hostility is so marked that what happens is the opposite of what you say: the Atlas and Wilson books are both laced with gratuitous snide remarks and both have moments where they don’t give credit where credit is due or put what manifestly seem to be unduly harsh constructions on their subjects’ behaviour. I say this by the way as someone who doesn’t have any particular problem with the idea that Bellow and Tolstoy were awful people, or the rest of them for that matter: just not quite as awful, in absolutely every last instance, as their biographers painted them.

    There are also the biographies that don’t seem to gloss over their subject’s bad qualities, but try not to voice any distaste: the Richard Davenport-Hines’s biography of Auden, for instance, gives enough reasons to dislike him, and at any rate makes it clear that he was a very strange man, but Davenport-Hines never editorialises about it. Likewise it is not unheard of for readers of David Marr’s biography of Patrick White to conclude that White was a godawful pain in the neck, at the very least, but Marr himself seems not to have thought so, or, better still, you can’t tell if he did as he didn’t think it was his job to make those kinds of judgments.

    1. Owen, what a pleasure to see you here. I hope you’ll keep coming back. Thanks for providing an alternative perspective – perhaps those biographies are underwritten by the flipside of the motivation I described in my post: the desire to make yourself feel better as a writer by denigrating another one. It does seem to me that when biography tips over into something quite as nasty as you describe the biographer is just begging to be psychologized.


      1. Resentment may play a part, true. I think it’s also possible that the biographer goes stir crazy – they spend years and years immersed in the details of someone else’s life, and if the virtual relationship goes bad ie if they discover there are good reasons to think the person they are writing about is a shit, they lose a sense of perspective. Particularly as it’s a relationship from which they can’t easily escape – the contract has been signed, the advance has been spent, etc.

  2. to think that good writing/art/literature can only be created by “good” people is one of the most common and most problematic fallacies I’ve come across! Pieces can’t be divorced from their creators or context, no matter how much you want to pretend they can.

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