Biography and the writer


Some years ago a novelist wrote a biography of D.H.Lawrence. "Who needs yet another new new and lightweight D.H.Lawrence biography?" I asked the agent we both shared at the time. "Why did she bother?

"Because her publisher paid her ten times more for this biography than for any of her fiction," came the convincing reply.

Since then I've played a regular one-man parlour game of 'Which biography shall I write?' Nipping into the Amazon data bases in the US and here, I almost invariably find my chosen writer's life has a recent or future publishing date by someone else. Finding the occasional blank - a recent one was Patricia Highsmith - I ring the agent and find the official biographer is already at work.

Patricia Highsmith would have been wonderful. As a novelist I go back to her frequently, for the way her clean prose packs both menace and drive. It would have done me good to have bathed in her works for a couple of years, and to have come to understand her craft in a deeper way.

I've had my 'inside scoop' on Anthony Burgess for many years (see the previous posting). While I've enjoyed some of his work, the prospect of wading through his opus was disheartening. The man was voluminous, and I would have preferred him as a miniaturist. He didn't seem to care for his own work, churning it out without polish. If Burgess had been Michelangelo, his David would have been a fine slab of marvel with some dents smashed into it. It came as a relief to find two writers already competing with each other on Burgess as a subject. I had an inside track on Aldous Huxley, far more tolerable as a subject, but still found relief when some other writer picked up that particular baton.

Of course I'm on the wrong track in seeking writers that haven't been covered recently. Evelyn Waugh recommended that writers establish their careers by writing yet one more volume about the famous. You want the cover of The New York Times Book Review? Then write the new biography of Lawrence, of Samuel Beckett, of Virginia Woolf, of Oscar Wilde, one of the dozen or so perennial leading lights.

Would the life of John Bunyan do it? He's a curious gap I've found, with no major literary biography either recent or in the offing so far as I can tell. It bridges the spiritual concerns of my last biography, the story of a major literary figure, and a compelling period in history. Suggesting it here leaves open having the idea commissioned or poached. Anyone interested?

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