I first posted on this subject last year, 13 September. The reason I am touching on it again now is that a follower has very kindly sent me a cutting from the International New York Times of 23 January which is about biographies of people who (like George Calderon) have never had biographies written of them before.
In this article, Thomas Mallon calls for the first biography of American writer Tom Wolfe (still alive at 84), and Ayana Mathis calls for the first biography of American ‘novelist, cultural critic, and jazz and blues scholar’ Albert Murray, who died in 2013. They both make out excellent cases, but I don’t think publishers are going to rush to take them up.
Since Wolfe is still alive, what publishers will really want is a sensational autobiography, whether ghosted or not, and pace Ruth Scurr (see my post yesterday) autobiography is not a department of biography. With Albert Murray, I fear, few publishers will get further than a bemused ‘Who was Albert Murray?’.
These are two reasons why our own bookshops are not awash with new biographies in the sense of biographies of people who have not had biographies written of them before. Books about people’s lives may have outsold history in Britain last year, but those books consist almost entirely of celebrity stories of the living, memoirs (fictionalized or not), and ‘new’ biographies of people who have had biographies written of them before.
I know this myself from regular forays into Waterstones and Blackwells over the past year. I would say that 95% of the ‘new’ biographies are of very well known people who have had biographies of one sort or another written of them before. For instance, in the context of WW1, Sassoon, Owen, Brooke, Thomas, but (I think) no-one who is not ‘iconic’ already. And this is hardly surprising. As publishers have written to me, George Calderon’s life may be ‘vibrant…full of action…poetic…remarkable…very human’, and his self-sacrifice luminous, but if they can’t sell 6000 copies they are not going to publish it.
Naturally, as the author I believe they can sell more than 6000 copies of an innovative biography of an Edwardian genius, but as a one-time businessman myself I perfectly well understand why they may not take the risk.
It seems to me dreary and unintelligent to keep bunging out ‘new’ biographies of, say, Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen or Vita Sackville-West, when these contain hardly any new facts that can’t be found in previous biographies. But, of course, we mercifully do not live in a command economy and well-written ‘new’ biographies of such ready-made celebrities are relatively low-risk!
I would be the first to agree that a biography that contains no new facts but presents a fresh interpretation of its subject, is valuable. But you hardly ever find that in full-length biographies of, say, the celebrities named in the previous paragraph. Thanks to John Aubrey, I was seduced into presenting my own take on Chekhov (Hesperus Press, Brief Lives, 2008), but that was because, after forty years of living with Chekhov, I was bursting to say certain things about his works and life that I think had not been said before. I would never have dreamt of writing a ‘new’ full-length biography of Chekhov, as I couldn’t have added many new documented facts to those in the full-length biographies by Simmons (1963), Hingley (1976), and Rayfield ( 1997). Incidentally, the fifty or sixty Russian and European-language biographies of Chekhov that already existed could not hold a candle to the last three, but Simmons, Hingley, Rayfield, and even Miles, were fortunate in that the demand for biographies of Chekhov already existed…
If there is no ‘demand’ for a new biography, in the sense of a subject of whom publishers ask ‘Who is he?’, then they are not going to take the risk of publishing it. I still have a long way to go with publishers and I’m certain that by hook or by crook George Calderon: Edwardian Genius will eventually be published — with, even, its full complement of illustrations. But the above, I submit, explains why commercial publishing of genuinely new biography is almost at a standstill in our country.
Next entry: 8 March 1915