Have memoirs put biographies on the endangered species list?

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?

Book review by Stacy Schiff of The New York Times.

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About moonbridgebooks

Co-author of Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, a WWII Japan memoir of her mother's childhood; Co-author/Editor of Battlefield Doc, a medic's memoir of combat duty during the Korean War; life writing enthusiast; loves history and culture (especially Japan), and cats
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5 Responses to Have memoirs put biographies on the endangered species list?

  1. Linda says:

    I agree: "The generally cold, factual biography has been overcome by the warmth of personal stories." I haven't read a biography in years.The Good Earth was indeed gripping and tear-producing. You have motivated me to read it again. Now that I'm an old woman, I have a feeling I'd discover things I missed as a young reader. Linda

  2. Linda Austin says:

    Yes, this made me want to re-read The Good Earth, too. Actually, I'd like to buy a better copy than the moldy old trade book I have.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I really liked the article, and the very cool blog

  4. I agree that the line is blurring, and we're never sure just what we're reading when we pick up a memoir. You mention celebrity memoirs. I've begun reading (or listening to) about a dozen celebrity memoirs. Most strike me as puff pieces, seemingly contrived by script writers to have just the right amount of conflict and drama to balance the glamor. They lack a sense of authenticity. Since you mentioned it, I can't remember the last time I read a biography, other than struggling to get traction on the pages of JOHN ADAMS (didn't succeed). Using some of the newer creative nonfiction techniques to write them more in the style of historical novels would definitely make them more interesting to me.

  5. Linda Austin says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Sharon. You've further justified my aversion to celeb memoirs. I have, however, read Stephen King's "On Writing" which is a good writing memoir.The "biographies" I read and actually enjoy are quickie Wikipedia ones, but I do have Erik Larson's "In the Garden of Beasts" and "Devil in the White City" on my book shelf. They are biographies of historical figures written using fiction techniques. I'm looking forward to reading them and studying the techniques.

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