Saturday, 3 May 2014

A "zoeography"?

As well as building HayleyWorld itself, my PhD in Digital Writing by Practice requires me to write a 20,000-word "critical component". One chapter of this explores the theory and history of biography.

In one of the books I was reading for research purposes I found this:
Greek, unlike English, Latin, and many other languages, has not one, but two different words for life: bios, but also zoe. The latter denotes vital energy, either natural or physical or—in Christian authors—spiritual and divine, that is, the quality of being alive; as for bios, it means rather mode of life, manner of living, often what we name ‘conduct’ or ‘behaviour’.
(Sergei S Averintsev in Mapping Lives: The Uses of Biography edited by Peter France and William St Clair.)
One of the most heated debates in biographical/life-writing theory concerns how much – if any – "novelistic" imagination can and should be applied in the making of texts that readers expect to be factual. As a non-fiction writer, my sympathies sit most comfortably at the "none or as little as possible" end of the spectrum.

I came across Averintsev's comment just as I'd started to feel a little uncomfortable describing what I was making as a "biography". Whilst all the information in it would be (as far as possible) factual and accurate, the conceit behind it – that the reader would "get to know" someone who'd been dead for almost 200 years as if they were getting to know him in real life – introduced an obvious element of fiction.

So, as it's going to be a new form of biography anyway, and because I can (after all, the word isn't being used for any other purpose), I've decided to call it a zoeography.

Something that is true to the energy, the particular individual qualities of the life it tells – in this case William Hayley's – but which includes an element of fictionalisation – in this case, in the manner of its telling.