Visible and invisible biographers: a quick response to David Marr

Sue at Whispering Gums has given a great overview of David Marr’s Seymour lecture, “Here I stand”. He focused on the biographer’s craft, and he said so many things of great relevance to me, but I’ll just engage this comment:

Marr spent four years (I think) on the project, meeting with [Patrick] White, visiting places he’d been, meeting people he knew, and so on, but he is not in the book. Editors today, he said, would “tell me to get in there”, to write of his adventures in research. He described this style as “quest biographies”, and he doesn’t (generally) like them. They “inflict their homework on readers”

I love biographical quests; they’re how I came to biography. For my Master’s thesis , I wrote a biographical quest novel (“The Remains”) and a dissertation on aspects of the genre, including the influence of its non-fiction counterparts. From AJA Symons Quest for Corvo to Laura Sewell Matter’s “Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist” and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – and not forgetting Martin Edmonds Dark Night: Walking with McCahon, which I’ve just started – I’ve encountered some superb non-fiction biographical quests. 

Yet in my biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, I’m following Marr’s advice. There’s no room for me. Too little has been written about her life, and the focus needs to be on her. If there was less material or if there were more biographies of her, perhaps I’d be justified. Hazel Rowley found something similar writing on Christina Stead – she loved quests, too, and wanted to appear, only for the biography to be too long. Rowley makes only one fleeting appearance early in the biography to interview, in his old age, a man Stead loved; it’s a fascinating glimpse of what the biography could have been, but standing on its own it’s also inconsistent.

I’ve been striving not for anonymity or objectivity, but actually for what Marr wants biographers to do:  “they should be in the shadows ‘manipulating everything.'” So while in principle, I’m far more in favour of visible biographers than Marr, in practice I’m very much taking the approach he prefers. Perhaps my ambivalence is shown in this scene from my novel “The Remains”:

Kristen called him excitedly.

‘Scott’s had the best idea. The Alice quest—it doesn’t just have to be just the blog. I could turn it into the book itself. I need to be brave—forget the scholarship, the PhD, do this independently without having to please the academics.’

‘Shouldn’t the focus be on Alice?’

‘It still will be. But the quest itself is also interesting.’

He wasn’t saying anything, and so she finally said, ‘You don’t approve, do you?’

‘You want me to be painfully honest?’

‘Of course. Painfully.’

‘It might be seen as a very Generation Y way to do biography—you know, the attention turning to yourself, rather than the subject.’

‘Bah!’ she said, good-humouredly. ‘You are a crotchety old Gen Xer! This goes back to the 1930s, The Quest for Corvo. It has nothing to do with your stereotypes of my generation.’

‘Sorry. I was only anticipating criticisms. I agree it sounds interesting.’

‘Now please note—you can’t steal my idea for yours, right?’

He laughed. ‘Promise not to do that.’

He hadn’t shown her what he’d been writing since her lukewarm response to that early fragment, but his wasn’t a conventional biography either. The perpetual present tense he was writing in and the endless, unashamed speculation would probably raise the ire of reviewers as much as Kristen’s quest approach.

(I finally sent my novel to a publisher late last month, more than three years after submitting it as part of my thesis. Should it eventually be published, I think it’ll be rather confusing as people try to read it autobiographically – but the truth is I wrote about a biographer long before I became one. As has happened before, my fiction was ahead of my life.)

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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

9 responses to “Visible and invisible biographers: a quick response to David Marr

  • Lisa Hill

    Great article, Nathan, and I wish you all the best with the novel too.

    Like

  • whisperinggums

    Thanks for the link Nathan – I love it when we bloggers spring off each other. I hadn’t heard of The quest for Corvo until one of my commenters on this post of mine mentioned it. Where have I been, I wonder?

    Anyhow, I love you response to the idea of the visible and invisible biographer. As Marr says, it’s all about the purpose.

    Like

    • Nathan Hobby

      Thanks for reporting so well on the lecture! It came to Perth last year, but probably because Drewe is a local. I only discovered Corvo when I was halfway through my dissertation. It’s a little obscure, but has many great fans, for good reasons.

      Like

  • wadholloway

    I’m worried by ‘as has happened before’. Are we being attacked by fur? I haven’t heard from my boss in Collie for a while, should I be worried?

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  • Dr Denise Faithfull

    Hello Nathan, I agree with David Marr’s approach to the bio of Patrick White — leave yourself out of it. I loved Hazel Rowley’s bio of Christina Stead; very thoughtful. If a person is going to write a literary biography, I don’t believe there’s any room (well, only a tiny bit!) for the author of that biography to express opinions.

    Anyway, keep writing…as we all do!

    Like

  • whisperinggums

    Thinking about Dr Faithfull’s comment on literary biographies reminds me of Karen Lamb’s on Thea Astley. As I recollect she’s barely there? My memory is blurred. But, it’s a wonderful literary biography.

    OTOH I do love some quest bios as I told Marr when he signed my book!

    Like

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