Biography is dead.
Or so goes the conventional wisdom in publishing. It wasn’t always like this. Twenty-five years ago, big literary biographies were, along with potential Booker-prize winning novels, the goal of every serious editor. The bigger they were the better, and they often came in many volumes. Norman Sherry on Graham Greene, Michael Holroyd on George Bernard Shaw: full of details, a relentless tracking down of every relationship, every minor work, and every house the writer ever lived in. They combined the Victorian tradition of massive Lives and Letters with psychoanalytic awareness and frankness about the personal flaws of their subjects, so that no stone was left unturned, no laundry left unexamined. There were surely readers ploughing through Holroyd on Shaw who had never read more than a fraction of what Shaw himself wrote.
These books cost publishers a fortune. It may have been this, the impossible economics of paying writers enough to undertake such heroic feats of research and the struggle to keep the books in print, that discouraged publishers from sponsoring such ambitious projects in the 21st century. But the public also seemed to have had enough of them, and of course once Trollope or Proust has been ‘done’ competently for a generation of readers it takes some striking new information or a radically revisionist approach to make those readers invest in another book on the same subject. There is also a certain limit to the number of writers that reward the effort a biography demands. Is there anything more that can intelligently be said about the Bloomsbury circle, whose most minor affiliates have been crawled over by diligent literary dung-beetles?
Whatever the reason, whenever an editor proposed a new biography in the second decade of the new century, the look on sales peoples’ faces would sour milk. They had their reasons. No matter how eminent, biographers struggled to sell their books. The quantities revealed in the cruel glare of the Bookscan system, linked to about 85% of British bookshops, were truly pitiful. But this is hardly proof that readers have become uninterested in the lives of others. They have become bored by elephantine completism and by retreads; many people will have asked themselves just how many biographies of, Darwin, for example, they needed to have on their shelves. Yet when a neglected figure is written about whose accomplishments deserve to be understood and celebrated and placed in context, the public returns. Learning about the turmoil, the rags and bones from which great work springs will always be deeply fascinating.
Three years ago I had the privilege of editing Graham Farmelo’s The Strangest Man, a superb life of Paul Dirac, the greatest British physicist of the 20th century. If he’d been a writer he’d already have been done to death, but Dirac might as well not have existed for most non-scientists and was virgin soil for a biographer. Farmelo’s book – fully attentive to the human dimension of this eccentric genius – found a wide audience and went on to win the 2009 Costa Award for biography, the UK’s most prestigious prize for life writing.
Now Matthew Hollis has won the 2011 Costa for his remarkable Now All Roads Lead to France, a book about the last years of Edward Thomas that were also the years in which he realised his gift as a lyric poet and created a body of poems that have been enormously influential on British and Irish poets ever since. It is also the story of Thomas’s friendship with Robert Frost, who encouraged him to break out of prose. The book is not a conventional biography, though the reader learns enough about Thomas’s earlier life, and its concentration on the last few creative and tragic years delivers a powerful emotional charge. Hollis’s book has attracted unusual, unforced praise, and featured in a large number of critics’ lists of their books of the year. For the Costa prize it was shortlisted with Claire Tomalin’s brilliant new life of Dickens (which has sold more than 50,000 copies in hardback, another indication that biography’s terminal illness has periods of serious remission), Patrick Cockburn‘s brave and moving story of his son Henry’s mental crisis, which was written with Henry (and which I wish I had been able to publish), and Julia Blackburn’s account of her life in Tuscany. It is a real achievement to win a major award against such distinguished competition.
Ironic for me, really, because when I came into this trade, or craft (or whatever the hell it is), I defined myself against the vast slabs of biography then being published. I never wanted to publish books about individual lives unless they illuminated something larger too, though I remember feeling a little inferior about not having a serious literary biography on my totem pole. So I asked Gerald Martin to write a life of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It took him nearly twenty years. (At the time I couldn’t see two years ahead, never mind twenty). By the time Gerry had finished the manuscript was about 2,500 pages long and would have made a great multi-volume Life of the kind that was being published when I first commissioned it, but more interesting, because from it you could learn so much about the history of Colombia and the golden age of the Latin American novel. We couldn’t agree about any practical way of publishing the book and parted amicably, at least I hope we did. A different editor, Bill Swainson, managed to carve out the smaller but very fine book that was by then the only feasible version, and I had the strange experience of seeing the first biography I ever commissioned coming out under a rival imprint (Bloomsbury). I hope one day – perhaps through the infinite possibilities of digital publishing – to see the full version made available. It would give me a very late and tenuous connection to the ranks of Big Lives.
For the moment, though, I feel happy publishing Matthew Hollis’s book, one of the most sheerly beautiful pieces of work I’ve ever been lucky enough to edit.
Biography is dead? Nah, it’s just resting.
Edward Thomas was perhaps the most beguiling and influential of First World War poets. Now All Roads Lead to France is an account of his final five years, centred on his extraordinary friendship with Robert Frost and Thomas’s fatal decision to fight in the war. The book also evokes an astonishingly creative moment in English literature, when London was a battleground for new, ambitious kinds of writing. A generation that included W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost and Rupert Brooke were ‘making it new’ – vehemently and pugnaciously. These larger-than-life characters surround a central figure, tormented by his work and his marriage. But as his friendship with Frost blossomed, Thomas wrote poem after poem, and his emotional affliction began to lift. In 1914 the two friends formed the ideas that would produce some of the most remarkable verse of the twentieth century. But the War put an ocean between them: Frost returned to the safety of New England while Thomas stayed to fight for the Old. It is these roads taken – and those not taken – that are at the heart of this remarkable book, which culminates in Thomas’s tragic death on Easter Monday 1917.