“There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people, if he’s any good.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald
I didn’t plan on making this The Year of the Literary Biography, but I recently took stock of the books I’ve bought this year and the majority of them are author biographies of authors. So I guess this year I’ll be learning a little something about some of my favourite writers, including J.D. Salinger, Edgar Allan Poe, and Virginia Woolf.
I’m pretty sure my love of literary biographies started a couple of years ago when I read Nancy Milford’s Zelda Fitzgerald bio. There is something so fascinating about the lives of authors, especially when you’re a writer yourself. You can discover how they worked, where their ideas came from. Not to mention the problems they faced and addictions they had to overcome. As this article puts it, “most writers lead quiet lives or, even if they don’t, are of interest to us because of the words they set down in what had to be quiet moments.”
Writers live mostly in their own heads, and the majority of them lead pretty “quiet lives”, hidden away behind a closed door. This article even goes as far as saying that literary biographies should be outlawed because learning about “artists’ lives can be damaging because it distorts and deflects attention from what truly matters, which is the artist’s work.”
Obviously a ban on literary biographies isn’t going to happen anytime soon. People will always be interested in reading about the lives of other people, even if those people aren’t as compelling as Hemingway, Kerouac, or Dickens.
In my opinion, when it comes to biographies, literary or otherwise, the more comprehensive the better, which means you can be looking at reading books that are around 1000 pages. After spending all that time with someone, you walk away feeling like you really know them. Although, there are always exceptions. For example, I started this year by reading the Joan Didion biography, The Last Love Song, a hefty read that didn’t bring me any closer to understanding the famous writer. But typically, a well-researched biography can make you look at a writer and the work they created in a completely different way. After I read Sylvia Plath’s unabridged journals, I wanted to reread everything she’d ever written, since I felt like I had a totally different perspective.
If you want to read some literary biographies but aren’t sure where to start, here’s an excellent list of 50 Essential Literary Biographies, covering everyone from Jane Austen and Flannery O’Connor to Marcel Proust and Walt Whitman. There’s also this list of the 10 Best Biographies of Literary Women and this very extensive list on Goodreads.