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In his latest book, Summertime, J.M. Coetzee continues his recent metafictional experimentations by positing an alternative self, the late John Coetzee, as a biographical subject. Critics have dwelt at fascinated length on the disfigurement to which Coetzee submits himself: his fictional alter ego is an unvarnished misanthrope, a sexual cipher. Yet the biographer, known simply as Mr Vincent, has elicited relatively little interest, perhaps because he is an instantly identifiable stock figure: the littérateur as sleuth, plodding in pursuit, devious in intent. ‘I was under the impression you were simply going to transcribe our interview and leave it at that,’ complains one of Mr Vincent’s interviewees, irate at the liberties taken with her recollections. ‘I had no idea you were going to rewrite it completely.’ Another remonstrates pointedly: ‘It would be very, very naive to conclude that because the theme was present in his writing it had to be present in his life.’

Mr Vincent owes something to Alroy Kear, the overweening literary gadfly intent on spilling the secrets of the late Edward Driffield in W. Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale. He also owes something to Jake Balokowsky, the American hack academic on Philip Larkin’s trail in the poet’s ‘Posterity’; Mr Vincent might well conclude of Coetzee, as Balokowsky does of Larkin: ‘Oh, you know the thing . . . one of those old-type natural fouled up guys.’ Actually, writers and American academics seldom mix well: in William Golding’s The Paper Men, distinguished English novelist Wilfred Barclay is being importuned by ‘boring young professor’ Rick L. Turner of the University of Astrakhan in Nebraska, who in the novel’s rather jarring final sentence proves not so boring after all.

Whatever the case, the success of Summertime attests an abiding public fascination with and ambivalence about the mechanics of biography. How does it happen? Who wins? Who gets hurt? These are perennial wranglings. ‘Sometimes, arguing about biography is like arguing about abortion or capital punishment: minds tend to be made up before you start,’ observed J.D. Salinger’s thwarted biographer, Ian Hamilton, in Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography. ‘Depending on your point of view, or the nature of your personal involvement, the biographer is either a sleaze-hound or “an artist on oath”, the executor either a secretive parasite or a protector of imperiled decencies.’ These days there’s even a sub-genre about people not writing biographies, from A.S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale, where the narrator compensates for failing to write a life of a fictional explorer by having sex with various eerily spectral women, to Geoff Dyer’s memoir Out of Sheer Rage, where procrastination delays then dooms a study of D.H. Lawrence.

Ironically, all this comes at a time when something seems amiss with Australian biography. Like the viewers who watch food programs as an alternative to cooking, we seem more interested in talking about it than actually doing it. No writers’ festival is complete, of course, without a panel on biography, during which speakers go round and round in circles discussing where they draw the line. Yet Australian biographies of quality – some excellent recent examples notwithstanding in Ann Blainey’s life of Nellie Melba and Jill Roe’s of Miles Franklin – have grown discouragingly scarce. It is almost twenty years since the last biography to have a serious public impact: David Marr’s Patrick White, in 1991. And just as Norman Mailer once said that Americans were incapable of approaching any book not already a best seller, so it seems Australian publishers are incapable of endowing books about anyone not already famous.

The genre is still paid lip service. Five years ago, the Humanities Research Centre at Australian National University attracted some press by creating a Biography Institute. When I visited the institute’s website recently, however, it had not been updated for more than a year. I gained a feeling for the state of the discipline last year when I judged the National Biography Award. Like my fellow judges, I was perplexed by the poor standard of the entries. Autobiographies and memoirs abounded, some of them produced with great lavishness to disguise their thinness; in the category of scholarly biography, pickings were especially slim. We actually discussed not giving the prize; personally, I would rather not have, not necessarily because the eventual winners were altogether undeserving, but because they had beaten such a weak field.

At the time, I conjectured that the phenomenon might indicate a dearth of worthwhile Australian subjects. But I soon filled a long list with Australians who might be considered ‘famous’ or ‘great’ still to receive full-scale biographical treatment. Consider the faces on our banknotes: Catherine Helen Spence, William Farrer and Dame Mary Gilmore have found no biographer; Mary Reibey and John Tebbutt are the subjects only of monographs; the books on John Flynn, Caroline Chisholm and Lawrence Hargrave are slight or dated. Although Ned Kelly has inspired whole libraries, there is still no biography of the vastly more important sentencing judge, Redmond Barry. Annette Kellerman was recently the subject of a documentary, but awaits a biography; Sister Elizabeth Kenny was played by Rosalind Russell in a 1946 biopic, but still piques no interest among writers here (she was the subject of a competent but rather staid 1975 book by a Washington Post journalist, Victor Cohn). While pleasing lives of Arthur Tange and Nugget Coombs have appeared recently, public servants like Frederick Shedden, Roland Wilson, Frederick Wheeler, Harold Raggatt and Harold White are overdue the attention of researchers.

Once you begin this parlour game, it becomes oddly compulsive. Here’s a random sprinkling of other twentieth-century Australians whose lives have not been told at book length: the Baillieus (jointly and severally), Sir Donald Bradman (subject of numerous books, but no serious biography), Boy Charlton, Sir Zelman Cowen, John Duigan, Sir John Eccles, Sir William Dargie, Herb Elliott, Sir Eugene Goosens, A.D. Hope, Donald Horne, Inigo Jones, Vincent Lingiari, Lennie Lower, David Scott Mitchell, Gladys Moncrieff, Sir Charles Moses, Albert Namatjira, Sir Hubert Opperman, Roy Rene, Ross and Keith Smith, J.C. Williamson. At the risk of indulging myself, there’s also a category of Australians about whom I would like to read a book: Frank Clune (prodigious penny-a-liner), Alf Conlon (shadowy impresario of the Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs), W.H. Fitchett (the imperialist whose Deeds that Won the Empire was perhaps our first international non-fiction best seller), Norman Gregg (who discovered the link between rubella in pregnancy and infant handicaps), Sir Maurice Mawby (Australia’s most important mining engineer), Elton Mayo (Australia’s most influential social scientist, founder of the human relations school in the management of organisations), Eric Partridge (pioneer of lexicography), George Patterson (pioneer of Australian advertising). These reflect my biases – you will have yours. It’s fun. Then the chagrin sets in: where is headed a culture so incurious about its past?

Is biography a fading force in general? The twentieth century’s love affair with the genre might be regarded as a parallel impulse to the investigations and speculations of psychoanalysis – there was once even a school of so-called ‘psychobiography’. In a mental health regime now geared to medication rather than exploration, biography might even be thought at odds with the quest for well-being. Yet that doesn’t seem the case elsewhere. Biography seems to be in rude health in Britain, at least to judge by Victoria Glendinning’s adroit new life of Leonard Woolf, and Michael Scammell’s definitive book on Arthur Koestler. Recent American biographical subjects, meanwhile, range from Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon to Warren Beatty and Hugh Hefner; Joseph Frank has just completed the abridging of his momentous five-volume life of Dostoevsky. These markets have their own deep popular end: Being Jordan, the autohagiography of celebrity extraordinaire Katie Price, sold more than a million copies in Britain alone. But this enthusiasm derives at least partly, I think, from a shared conviction that the genre matters, endures and offers insight.

Part of the problem, I suspect, originates in the ideological and intellectual malaise in Australia’s demoralised universities. Academics are drilled in the research skills relevant to biography, yet the craft is at odds with all their modern hang-ups. It involves in an assertion that the subject is important enough to justify research – an action analogous to that most disreputable of pursuits, canon building. It entails a broadly linear narrative – a cultural studies no-no. Liberal dogma emphasises the necessity of siding with the disenfranchised, while the PhD cult dictates ever narrower and more grant-worthy specialisations. Biography?  Better one of Jim Dixon’s funereal parades of yawn-enforcing facts shedding pseudo-light on non-problems.

A good deal of blame can be heaped at the door of Australia’s publishers, too, who for the messy, complex, unpredictable and time consuming genre of biography have found a slick and cheap substitute in the form of memoir. No fraught relationship between life and writer; no apprehensions about access or permissions; no mucking around with literary executors; just good old-fashioned narcissism, blending perfectly with the era’s pervading ethos. You can even con star-struck readers into believing that yours is the more authentic, unmediated artefact – although the individual whose name the cover bears may have done little more than give the enterprise his or her blessing. Will Rogers’s definition of memoir still holds true: ‘It’s where you put in all the good stuff you shoulda done, and leave out all the bad stuff ya did.’ Living subjects also have an inherent marketing advantage: the dead aren’t very photogenic or telegenic.

On the whole, though, I suspect it is as simple as that there are easier ways to earn a living, and that living in the shadow of a subject for the years required to craft something really worthwhile involves a determination and a humility no longer common among those with writing aspirations. I twice interviewed the historian Allan Martin, after the first volume then the second volume of his life of Sir Robert Menzies, written over the span of fifteen years. The first had sapped his strength, the death of his research assistant exacting a grievous personal and professional toll. By the publication of the second volume, he was a very frail and elderly man who tackled steps one at a time. He had earlier worked eighteen years on a life of Sir Henry Parkes.

Brenda Niall’s Life Class, her lively collection of biographical case studies, begins with the writer studying the corner of her library in which repose the four fine books she spent two decades crafting:

They don’t take up much space on the shelf, but each book represents a bulky archives, a gallery of sights and memories [. . .] Filing cabinets overflow with birth, marriage and death certificates, shipping lists and railway timetables, taped interviews, photographs, bibliographies, random jottings of advice to myself. Travel notes from London, Rome, Edinburgh, English villages, castles in Scotland, art galleries in Vienna, Prague and Budapest. Notes from libraries in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, London, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Dundee, from a local historical collection in Swiss Cottage and a family archive in Chichester.

This, then, is no pastime for dilettantes, and we live in dilettantish days.

Indeed, it is this sense which, for all Coetzee’s virtuosity, formed my overriding response to Summertime. Mr Vincent is an earnest young man. He is loath to rely for biographical insights on Coetzee’s own words, work or correspondence; Coetzee is a ‘fictioneer’, he explains, too skilful to be trusted at his own account. Mr Vincent intends instead to craft a book out of interviews with five of the author’s intimates, who, of course, manipulate him as he manipulates them. Coetzee depicts his biographer manqué as glib, obtuse and perhaps also a little disingenuous, but that wasn’t my objection; what irked me instead was that he was so fucking bone idle.


Editor’s note: A line, beginning at paragraph number 9 here, was omitted in the print version of this article, published in Issue Two of Kill Your Darlings. We apologise to Gideon Haigh for this error.