On Writers

On Biography & Autobiography

Address at the University of Tasmania, 1986.

We, the Reader.

We read biography for the display of a life, sometimes we find the craft and the artistries are good enough to give us the phenomenon of reviving the life.

At the very end of Morris Lurie’s biography ‘Whole Life’ he has written a fantasy Afterword in which his old and resentful parents are alive again; they sit in the dingy family loungeroom while Morris, now as a sudden genius with, I think, a jazz trumpet, so overwhelms them with admiration for him that they clap along with his beat, then heave to their feet to dance a jig. Morris says he had not thought of it this way while writing, but his wistful coda brought them back to life forever, anyway as long as his book ever has a reader, to live as a family now, as happy together as they should have, in life.The most immediately successful biographies concern the famous, because the publicity is easy and works quickly toward sales. Against that grain, one thinks of fine specialist biographies like Jacqui Kent’s of Bea Davis, otherwise we go to autobiographies: AB Facey’s ‘A Fortunate Life,’ Sally Morgan’s ‘My Place,’ and closer to home Susan Duncan’s ‘Salvation Creek.’ But I can’t think of an incoming biographer able to succeed so well with a work on an other than luminary life of another. The lesson here is, I think, to be arresting these need the character’s own engaging voice.

Contrasting the autobiographer with the incoming biographer, let’s begin with the difference in voice, the writer’s voice. Here is an advantage for the autobiographer who will find it easier to maintain the authorial voice, the ‘personal accent’ might be another term for this, appropriate to the story, which will sound tones of nostalgia or of fear, triumph, relief, presented as some endearing effort at an accurate reverie. The endearment is necessary, at least for me as a reader; for example I have made more than six attempts to read one of history’s most important memoirs, and failed every time because of this lack of endearment; the work is Hitler’s ‘My Struggle.’

To sow a seed of necessary scepticism in the skills of reading autobiography, let’s look at emotional conflicts in the tasks of an incoming writer compared with the memoir writer, most of which centre around self-protection. Readers can expect an incoming writer to be crueller in treating the dark side of character. In an autobiography, assume an admitted wickedness may have been far, far worse in truth than on the page. Oftentimes the auto biographer will have been kindly used by the mechanisms of protective memory.

I’d like to be understood not to be saying autobiographies amount to an ‘easier shot’ as a writing task. The ‘auto’ in autobiography does not mean that it writes itself, and anyone who’s tried it will see the wonderful absurdity there.I’ve managed to come this far now, without mentioning Evil Angels. First, I want to discount it as a biography of Lindy Chamberlain. Some folk here now will know I’ve said elsewhere Evil Angels is not about the Chamberlains, it is about us. Like every journalist, I’ve written many of the mini biographies we call profiles, and one similarity Evil Angels has with these is the form, which I much like, of placing character in the setting of an event. An event, for me, provides something like a ‘natural habitat’ for exposing character.

I’ll finish with this, because we’ll progress to a conversation about matters like these, so I simply note a preference for personal stories in which an event becomes the vehicle for the wider narrative, we watch the development of character to deal with, and perhaps re-shape, the events and, in the most important of this manner of writing, the reader sees not only the force of events on the subject character, but feels the effect of events and the effect of the character on the reader and life in our own times.

Writing which achieves this is a true triumph.

No, one more final thought. From feudal times to perhaps the end of Empire, biography was the art of flattery, as was portraiture. Through the age of democratic experiment the lessons of biography were determinedly historical, so we could make use of them to guide us in our effort to improve our societies. Now, as we move further into the post-democratic era, the subject of biography may more and more deal with the subterfuges of power and of powerful people, some to admire them, some to unmask them. If the western societies run true to past form, the unmasking will be made more difficult, made illegal, made punishable, made worse as we pass from the post-democratic are into an age of rebellion. The central and determining influence on how we come through the age of rebellion may well be that of journalists and biographers, if they are up to the task.