Finding “critical utility” for literary biography: a summary and initial response to Philip Holden

This post, I warn you, is a response to an academic journal article. If you find it boring or incomprehensible, please do come again another time – you’re likely to encounter something of broader appeal.

Philip Holden’s “Literary Biography as a Critical Form” Biography 37.4 (Fall 2014) is a lifeline thrown out to literary biography, the “Cinderella” of literary studies. Holden takes as his point of departure Michael Benton’s monograph Literary Biography: An Introduction (2009). In my reading of Benton’s work (which I found an excellent account of the state of the genre and challenges and issues within it for the biographer and reader), he is content to retain literary biography’s estrangement – or at least distinctiveness – from literary theory and literary criticism and proceed with giving an account of the genre on its own terms. Holden, in contrast, wants to achieve a rapprochement. He believes literary biography “has critical utility: it possesses the potential, as yet not fully realized, to be a mode of critical inquiry employing narrative techniques that are excluded from the expository prose of most current critical scholarship. In particular, literary biography has the potential to ask new questions about the relationship of a reader to biographical and literary texts, and thus to provoke reflection on the relationship between readership and subjectivity.”

To approach literary biography in this way is to privilege experimental biographies which can best provoke these questions. The three types of experiment that Holden discusses have been largely discussed already by Benton, but Holden’s new perspective on them is valuable.

Firstly, partial biographies. In discussing Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens (2011), Holden writes that “the restricted canvas enables the writing of a life that is more literary and less wedded to the synoptic coverage of a chronicle. More particularly, the focus on the early life distances the historical Dickens from the career author apprehended through his best-known fiction, since the narrative present never reaches the time of composition of these works.” (926)

Secondly, biographies arranged around objects, in the tradition Edmund De Waal’s The Hare with the Amber Eyes. Holden finds the attempts on the lives of Hemingway and Austen using this method disappointing – perhaps because of inadequate rationale and a difference of opinion over the textual nature of even physical objects.

Thirdly, biographies in which the biographer is present as a character – the biographical quest, in fact. He sees a danger in its overuse – it leads away from engagement with the texts themselves, a criticism one could make of all biography. (And here I would defend the value of biography as an end in itself.)

Holden, finally, sees the greatest value in forms closer to fiction, returning to that favourite of anyone writing about literary biography, Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, as well as the work of Peter Ackroyd, and developments since.

At the end of the article, Holden makes a single observation about the biographers whose tradition I am writing in: “formally conventional literary biography has also changed. Examining literary biography that scrupulously observes the pact, Jane McVeigh has shown how Hermione Lee, Claire Tomalin, and Richard Holmes have responded to critical discussions about the status of the biographer and his or her subject within a biographical text; if their texts still remain predominately readerly in Barthes’s terms, they are now perhaps more openly aware of the constitutive contradictions of the pact that they make with their readers.”

Like Holden, I value the (potential) “literariness” of the literary biography. To find critical value for the genre in this is valuable as far as it goes, but, like Benton, I would argue for the significance of literary biography as its own branch of literary studies.

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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

4 responses to “Finding “critical utility” for literary biography: a summary and initial response to Philip Holden

  • wadholloway

    Don’t get me wrong, I read biographies of all the authors I admire and
    I intend to read (and pay for!) your biography of KSP. But. You quote Holden as saying literary biography illuminates the relationship of the reader to the text, a motherhood-ism in post-modern theory, whereas it seems to me the main objective of literary biography is to re-connect the text to the author.

    Liked by 1 person

  • whisperinggums

    Interesting point Bill. The broader point seems to be that literary biography “possesses the potential, as yet not fully realized, to be a mode of critical inquiry”. Surely any non-fiction work (in particular) has the “potential” to be a mode of critical enquiry. I presume he’s saying that biography is generally overlooked as something worthy of scholarship and is arguing the case for its value/worth/relevance? From my point of view it depends very much on the aim of the biographer – is he/she aiming for a popular “this is the life” book or something more analytical that illuminates the author’s work. This assumes, of course, that you can bring in things external to the work/text to one’s analysis of it, that the work/text does not have to stand alone.

    Is any of this making sense or am I rambling into the ether?

    Like

    • Nathan Hobby

      You’re both making sense. Reading the article does have me re-examining the question “what is literary biography for”? Philip Holden is finding a use for it within literary theory, but of course that needn’t be it’s only or main purpose. I am interested in reconnecting the text to the author (and providing a new historical account of the production of those texts), but also telling the author’s story for its own sake and to illuminate a lost time and place.

      Like

      • whisperinggums

        I like that Nathan … that second part is as interesting too as the literary history/criticism part, particularly where the author has lived in interesting times and has been active within those times as Prichard was.

        Liked by 1 person

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