Biography is a genre in crisis, according to Michael Holroyd, one of the most respected biographers of modern times. The ‘golden age’ of biography has come and gone. Literary biography in particular is ‘tremendously out of fashion’.
Similar views are frequently heard in the book trade nowadays. Sales forecasts are lower than they were, and advances correspondingly smaller. Professional biographers are finding life hard. Not long ago it was reported that Victoria Glendinning, the author of several highly praised literary lives (at least one of which was a bestseller), was finding it difficult to obtain a commission for her latest project. Apparently the public no longer wants to read full-scale biographies; according to one publisher-turned-agent, ‘readers are bored by the form’.
Well, I disagree. Biography seems to me to be remarkably resilient. The best biographies being published now are as good as any that appeared in the past – and the worst just as bad. Whenever I hear a lament for the passing of a golden age, I suspect