Monday, April 23, 2007

Whither the Literary Biography?

Two new literary biographies have come to my attention lately: Edith Wharton, by Hermione Lee, and The Life of Kingsley Amis, by Zachary Leader. Both are enormous works of scholarship, in quite the literal sense — the Wharton book is the lightweight at 869 pages — and both offer plenty of interesting insights into the lives and times of two important voices in modern literature and the forces that shaped their long careers.

Of the two, I would most hope that Amis is not forgotten already. If nothing else, you should read Lucky Jim, and anyone seriously interested in science fiction as literature should be familiar with New Maps of Hell. Wharton, on the other hand, to me seems inescapable, but that may simply be the long-lingering result of being forced to read Ethan Frome when I was in 9th Grade. At the end of the semester, on the last day of school, we gathered in a picnic area in Humboldt Park and burned our copies of Ethan Frome, we hated it that much. (Memo to All Teachers: if you want to imbue 13- and 14-year-old boys with a lasting love of literature, do not make them read Ethan Frome.)

As blogfodder, though, what interests me most is this idea. The Wharton book is based on an almost-forensic exhumation of her writings and letters, which was not an easy task, as Wharton had the peculiar habit of retrieving her letters from their recipients and burning them, in order to ensure that only the statements and opinions she was willing to have made public survived her. Amis, on the other hand, was a promiscuous alcoholic and wrote accordingly, producing an absolutely enormous volume of personal material and spewing it all over the landscape, leaving behind a great pool of written information to be strained through in search of meaning.

But — letters? What are these letters of which you speak? Who writes letters any more?

So here is the question of the week. In this age of email, cellphones, IM'ing and txtmsgng, does the literary biography have a future, and if so, which shape will it take? We've already seen it demonstrated in a very public way that it is impossible to retrieve one's blog postings and embarassing emails and burn them. Will the biographers of the future think we were all illiterate, because we left so few letters behind? Or will, God help us, our emails, text messages, and whining bloggerel live on long after us, in readable form, so that the task of the future biographer becomes that of donning hip boots and wading in, while hoping not to drown in effluvia and trivia?

The floor is now open for discussion. Your thoughts?