Saturday, 23 January 2016

On Life-Writing edited by Zachary Leader

This collection of essays edited by Zachary Leader is a lively and multifarious exploration of life-writing and reading, grounded, as his introduction explains, mostly "in individual instances" rather than surveys of "historical, theoretical, or generic fields; generalizations are grounded in particulars." (p2) This approach means the book feels rooted in a way that much academic discourse doesn't, and its earthed approach is, I think, particularly suitable for framing creative practice – in contrast to understanding and responding to its processes and products, where an exploration of airier, more purely theoretical provinces can often provide a more rounded perspective.

Because this blog is primarily about my zoeography project, rather than review the book here, I'm going to think out loud around some of the ideas, quotes and conclusions that I found most useful and stimulating.

William St Clair's essay ‘Romantic Biography: Conveying Personality, Intimacy and Authenticity in an Age of Ink on Paper’ explores the "literary and visual devices" biographers and other writers used in their "attempts to shrink the gap between the reader and the subject, to reduce the role of the middleman, to exclude outsiders from what they wanted to make and keep as a personal and intimate relationship." (pp 69-70)

In particular, he points out how letters, signatures and portraits were reproduced in books to create an illusion of closeness between subject and reader and how sketches – seemingly "spontaneous, immediate, and realistic … dashed off" appear "to offer a direct romantic transfer from the perceived reality to the representation of that reality " (p63)

This approach, St Clair suggests, proved particularly effective with Byron's young female admirers, "who felt that he was writing especially for and to them as individuals, and that they knew him personally" (p65). It works, in other words, particularly well with fans dreaming of an intimate relationship with the object of their affection. As with most illusions, the audience's complicity is key.

As Hermione Lee points out in her essay "’From Memory’: Literary Encounters and Life-Writing", "The reader’s first question of a biographer is always going to be, what was she, or he, like?". Other questions, she writes, will follow, but this is the first and most critical: "‘likeness’ must be there. Whatever form of ‘life-writing’ we are drawn to, we always greedily want moments of intimacy, revelation, immediacy, and inwardness." (p125) This renders a biographer's input tricky to negotiate: Intimacy, immediacy and, to a certain extent, revelation require his or her textual invisibility. Inwardness, however, can't be presented on the page or screen without intermediation. People, as Christine Wilks suggests, are black boxes: "One person can only infer what the other one is thinking and feeling from their outputs, from their behaviour or what they say."

IRL encounters, we have other clues to another's inwardness: body language, tone of voice, scent, for instance. But, in Blake Morrison's words, even in memoir, "Emotion on the page is always manufactured emotion—retrospective, artful, a declaration of the author’s heart but with calculated designs on the reader’s." (p206) Morrison's essay – “The Worst Thing I Ever Did: The Contemporary Confessional Memoir” – provides an elegantly-argued and provocative defence of the form. His assertions that
 "life-writing amounts to … a way of taking possession of your own life, or, where biography rather than memoir is concerned, someone else’s." (p214)
"though confession may play a part, it’s only there to do right by the dead, which means being honest, not hagiographical. True the dead don’t give permission, but death itself is a permission. And what it permits is elegy and homage." (p219)
are both challenging and challengeable, demanding agreement and questioning. The idea that I might be taking possession/ownership of someone else's life – even when that someone has been dead for nigh-on 200 years – isn't a particularly comfortable one, considered within an ethical framework. But it does require confrontation and exploration. How proprietorial do I feel about Hayley? And, even if death does permit elegy and homage, how far do elegy and homage permit honesty rather than hagiography?

These are issues Hayley, as biographer of his friends William Cowper and George Romney, wrestled with during the first decade of the nineteenth century: a time when hagiography was still dominant. His determination to "do right by the dead" through honesty led to epistolary confrontations with Lady Hesketh, who was unhappy with Hayley revealing details of her cousin Cowper's mental health issues and, in at least one instance, his political views.

Given the nature of HayleyWorld, the writing in On Life-Writing that I found particularly involving considers narrative form. One "of course!" moment was provided by J. David Velleman's statement in “The Rights to a Life” that "the story form is in essence an emotional cadence—an arc of emotions aroused, complicated, and resolved" (pp 222-223). This offers another dimension to ways of thinking reader journey, while Galen Strawson, whose essay “The Unstoried Life” is the book's last, unpicks narrative unity and concludes

"Consideration of the sequence—the ‘narrative’, if you like—may be important for some people in some cases. For most of us, however, I think self-knowledge comes best in bits and pieces. Nor does the concession yield anything to the sweeping view with which I began, the view—in Oliver Sacks’ words—that all human life is life-writing, that ‘each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”’, and that ‘this narrative is us, our identities’." (p301)
This is particularly interesting in that self-knowledge and, I'd add, the other-knowledge, or empathy that life-writing seeks to communicate are, arguably, qualitatively different from other forms of knowledge, which is why they're sometimes described as wisdom. Wisdom is, I'd suggest, a compound of experience, emotion and reflection. It can, therefore only develop out of/be built from bits and pieces, because that's how experiences, emotions and reflection happen. They are moments: bits and pieces of story rather than overarching narrative, in part because to construct a unified narrative, it's always necessary to exclude the pesky bits and pieces that don't fit, or that take the story off at a tangent. Wisdom, conversely, requires the full, complex picture with all its digressions, inconsistencies and marginalia.

Which wasn't remotely where I expected this post to end up when I started writing it…

Next week, I'll probably write about the New Media Writing Prize: I was one of the judges and the 2015 winners were announced this week…

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