September 14, 2003

Against biography?

By: Kelly Jane Torrance

British literary feuds are such fun. The journalistnovelist, and biographer A.N. Wilson has just published a biography of sorts of Iris Murdoch. I say “of sorts” because Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her is not a detached look at the late novelist and philosopher, but a personal reminiscence. And therein lies the controversy.

Wilson takes on Murdoch’s husband, the writer John Bayley, for publishing wildly successful but, in Wilson’s view, unseemly books about his wife. In his memoirs, Bayley chronicles, with unsparing detail, his wife’s descent into Alzheimer’s. We learn about the toilet habits–unpleasant–and television favorite–Teletubbies–of this once great mind. Wilson contributes a bit of this sort of thing himself, describing the Bayleys’ filthy London flat. But his biggest crime seems to be his criticism of Bayley. Not only did the husband betray the wife by publishing lurid details of her decline while she still lived, but Wilson believes Bayley held Murdoch back in the small world of Oxford, and even denied her children. But Bayley is a sympathetic character, having looked after a dying wife, with many friends in the British literary establishment. Wilson has suffered one scathing review after another.

Bayley’s books marked the beginning of the Iris Murdoch industry. He wrote three in all, and they were turned into an acclaimed, Academy Award-winning film, Iris, with Kate Winslet playing the young, lusty Murdoch, and Judi Dench the old, faltering Murdoch. (Bayley also revealed Murdoch’s pre-marital promiscuity and interest in women.) A monumental official biography was published two years ago.

People are very interested in Iris Murdoch. They read books by her husband and others about her, they read countless articles about her, they watch movies about her. So why aren’t they interested in reading an Iris Murdoch novel?

Or perhaps I should say we. I’m no snob–I’m just as guilty. I’ve faithfully followed the recent controversy, as those earlier. I read Bayley’s Elegy for Iris and have read parts of Peter Conradi’s biography. I saw Iris soon after it came out and own the DVD. I’ve read a great deal about Murdoch. But in the months since my interest was piqued I have only read about a quarter of one of her novels.

Part of the reason for me, I think, is that my interest in Murdoch’s life is so great that I worry I’ve only set myself up for disappointment. The novels might not be as good as I suspect they are.

But this doesn’t explain the general phenomenon. I, like so many others, am participating in high-brow celebrity following. It seems no one can resist our relentless celebrity culture. Sometimes we just change the players. Instead of reading the latest on Ben and Jen in People, we read the London Review of Books for the details of Sylvia and Ted. (Of course, the latter are about to get the Hollywood Treatment, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, no less.) We satisfy our lust for sordid gossip, yet remain firmly in the midst of high culture.

Biographies are big sellers. Two of the top three current hardcover non-fiction New York Times bestsellers are biographies. Many appear on the paperback list. Two different books about Benjamin Franklin are on both.

Perhaps this is because biographies are, at least in Allan Massie’s view, “a lazy read.” For one thing, you can easily dip in and out of them; impossible with a novel. (I myself have been flipping through, on and off, a new Orwell biography while writing this column.) Biographies just don’t require the same concentration, and you can get something–information, usually–out of small sections. What we get from novels we get from the whole.

Massie hints at this last aspect when he writes, “Novels may tell the whole truth because everything in the novel is as the novelist tells you it is; but biographers can’t.” But he also suggests another crucial point. Who can discern the inner life of another person? We rarely understand our own. But the novelist is an omniscient creator who can reveal all about his world. Paradoxical as it may seem, there may be more truth in fiction than biography. This is why they demand more from us.

Novels may be challenging, so we see reading the lives of great people a decent replacement. We expect more from their lives–brave deeds, daring escapades, profound thoughts. Reading a biography is often like reading a novel, and saying so about a specific book is one of the highest compliments a reviewer can pay. Ours is also a culture obsessed with process–witness, for example, the huge number of diet and self-help books, with no apparent effect–and biographies easily feed into this. Perhaps we also hope to take something away we can apply to our own lives.

Reading about the lives of novelists, poets, and other thinkers in the pages of respected publications just may be a form of celebrity watching for those of us who consider ourselves intellectual. It is getting easier for everyone to feel a bit more serious than they really are. When I visited Borders a few days ago, I noticed a new display of non-book items, including Burt’s Bees beauty products. As a poster to the Borders employees’ union Web site so succinctly observes, “Slowly but surely, the books are becoming the backdrop for the illusion of intellectualism that draws Sunday latte drinkers like flies. Push Oprah, Pilates and the top ten at them and they walk away feeling like Proust.”

Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash and a senior analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom. Her Web site is