In Defense of Literary Biography by Carole Angier

Carole Angier

In Defense of Literary Biography


IN HIS RECENT life of B S Johnson (reviewed in June's LR) Jonathan Coe tells a sad tale. In the 1960s and 1970s Johnson wrote seven avant-garde novels, now mainly remembered for their experimental antics: one was Published in sections in a box, another had a hole cut through several pages. In fact, Coe argues, Johnson was a wonderful storyteller. But his theories - his distrust of fiction and constant deconstruction of the form - slowly strangled both his novels and him. Soon after finishing the last one - 'in many ways the work of a writer at the end of his artistic tether', Coe says - Johnson committed suicide.

This will probably be Coe's only biography, so I'm not really worried about him. But he has done the same thing. Throughout this literary biography he tells us why he dislikes and distrusts literary biography; and, like Johnson, he constantly subverts the form he's writing in. For instance, he numbers

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