British author Hilary Spurling just won the James Tait Black award for her “part biography” of Pearl Buck, Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China. In the U.S., the title is Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth. Spurling’s book, at 320 pages is said to focus mainly on how Buck became a prolific writer and ignores most of her life in the U.S. until her death. This is rather interesting as usually a biography is comprehensive, like an autobiography. Even more interesting is that Spurling agrees with top British biographer Michael Holroyd that biography is out of style. Holroyd says the genre has been “subsumed into life writing,” and I agree with him.
Memoir has really hit its stride, especially due to technology advances that allow for more affordable self-publishing and good digital print quality. The generally cold, factual biography has been overcome by the warmth of personal stories straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Also, biographies tend to be about VIPs, not ordinary Joe’s like me and probably you. I think it depends on the person, and perhaps less people these days are that interested in reading a history book about a political figure, the usual biography topic. With our entertainment, short-attention-span culture, many prefer the shorter and get-to-the-interesting part focus of memoir. Plus, if you’re famous, why not write it your way and before you’re dead? Holroyd wrote his own memoir in 1999, and his most recent biography, Book of Secrets, of three not-so-famous women connected with one house, uses bits of memoir, and he has inserted himself into the story, experimenting with ways to keep biography interesting to the public.
I don’t remember the last biography I read since I devoured them in elementary and middle school, although now I’m tempted to go after one of Pearl Buck. I loved and cried over The Good Earth and should read more of Buck’s over 100 works. She had quite a life. Do you read biographies?