Reviews of biographies: downplaying biography and the biographer

There’s a review of Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike in this weekend’s Australian. It’s a biography which I felt relied far too heavily on Updike’s stories for insight into his life, unpicking the fictionalisation of each piece Updike wrote in an exhaustive and unilluminating way.

Yet, typically, in this review we get so little engagement with the biography itself. Instead, in this case as in many others, a review of a literary biography is a chance for the reviewer to reassess or recap the significance of the biographical subject. A review will draw on the portrait offered in the biography, and give some quick assessment on how good a biography it is, but it will not tend to properly discuss the book as biography. The concept of biography as a literary form is short-changed, and the significance of the biographer downplayed.

It’s understandable why this happens; it reflects the status of biography. Yet reviewing biographies as biography could be a major step forward in the development and recognition of the riches and potential of the genre.

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About Nathan Hobby

At work on a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard for a PhD at the University of Western Australia. Also a novelist and librarian. View all posts by Nathan Hobby

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