on biography

21daebb8-c102-11e5_1207353hFrances Wilson at the Times Literary Supplement:

No books are as body-conscious as biographies. Those formally “two fat volumes”, as Lytton Strachey described the Victorian double-decker, have reshaped themselves and emerged dexterous, slimline and superfit. To avoid what Michael Benton, in Towards a Poetics of Literary Biography, calls “the death march of chronology” we now have taut and muscular “micro-histories” casting a spotlight on months or moments, the new vogue of “object biographies” by which a life is examined synecdochally through a brass button or a bowl, plus a bionic squad of biofictions, biografictions, autonarrations and autobiografictions (no other genre has spawned more, or uglier, neologisms). And while biographical subjects have been democratized to include not only the expanded CVs of dead statesmen, but equally God, cod, and fog (London Fog: The biography, was published last October), autobiography has become the fiefdom of millions in the form of blogs, tweets, Flickr, social networking sites and selfies. Even the smartphone, apparently, is an autobiographical instrument.

On Life-Writing is a timely examination of the past, present and future of storied lives with the most arresting chapter, by Patrick Hayes, exploring the uncharted waters of the digital self. The term “life-writing” – coined by Virginia Woolf – catches most things in its net. As well as biography and autobiography, “life-writing”, says Zachary Leader in his introduction, includes “letters, writs, wills, written anecdotes, depositions, court proceedings . . . marginalia, nonce writings, lyric poems, scientific and historical writings”. The fifteen chapters here include discussions of medieval lives, the function of Facebook, the “life-writings” of Benjamin Franklin, the state of contemporary confessional memoirs (both in book form and online), and a chapter by Saul Bellow’s widow, Janis Freedman Bellow, on being turned by her husband into Rosamund, a minor character in Ravelstein(“don’t do this to me”, she begged him. “I’m not that woman: servile, prim, obedient”.)

more here.