Posted by: Kirsty | March 24, 2009

Literary = Death?

I’m a few days late to this little story, which was flagged to me by BookBrunch, but at the weekend Michael Holroyd wrote a short piece in The Guardian about whether or not bookshops are killing off the literary biography.

… towards the end of last year there was a meeting of writers and Waterstone’s staff at the Piccadilly branch, organised by the Society of Authors. It was a well-intentioned and profoundly depressing experience. When Wendy Cope asked about the sale of poetry, she was answered after a long, embarrassed pause by the very nice woman who looks after non-fiction. Deborah Moggach asked a question or two and learned that literary fiction was not on the whole welcome in the shop. In fact, the word “literary” is death to sales – and perhaps literary biography is worst of all.

I really hope this apparent trend doesn’t perpetuate. Over the last couple of years I’ve really discovered literary biographies as a genre and when I’ve not been knee-deep in uni work I’ve been enjoying them immensely. Indeed, I’m currently frustratingly close to the end of The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin. I’ve only about 70 pages to go, but That Damned Essay just keeps getting in the way. It’s brilliant, by the way, and unless the last 70 pages are so unspeakably awful that it ruins the entire book – and I doubt that will be the case – I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending it to all you interested in one of the greatest figures in feminist/women’s history.

But why does the word ‘literary’ strike such fear into the hearts of some readers? I must say that the word actually sells me the book, rather than dissuades me from buying it. Perhaps I am preaching to the converted in the blogosphere, but how many people really find the concept so scary? Is it that they feel the book will be “too clever” for them… or do they feel that literature is too elitist? I must say that it’s never struck me as such, but maybe I’m an exception. It’s an interesting question, I think, and I’d love to hear your views on it.

Incidentally, Michael Holroyd’s most recent book A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Their Remarkable Families looks utterly marvellous and I’m desperate for a copy. But not this side of the essay and the dissertation, I fear. You can read the whole of Holroyd’s Guardian piece here.



  1. Maybe the academic view of biographical criticism of an author’s work as deeply unfashionable and suspect is also a problem for readers not scared off by the literary tag? You’re preaching to the choir with me, though – I have about six shelves of literary biographies, and I truly hope the genre lives on.

  2. Love the genre and the two you mentioned sound wonderful. Of course, I just bought a book of poetry when in Borders last week and am looking forward to a whole slew of choices for April poetry month. I guess that means not only am I part of the choir, I’m pathetic. I wouldn’t mind so much if libraries still carried all these things, but sometimes it seems even they are on the lite diet.


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