Ford, Eliot, Joyce, and the Problems of Literary Biography

  • Max Saunders


‘Biography’ and ‘autobiography’ are terms which combine life and writing with deceptive ease. The relations between the two components have in fact rarely been easy; and describing literary biography as ‘Writing the Lives of Writers’ indicates part of the theoretical complexity of that particular version of life-writing. Yet thinking about literary biography tends to be based on a series of familiar binary oppositions which generally involve posing a term of life against a term of writing: experience vs art; biography vs criticism; autobiography vs novel; truth vs fiction; and so on. Common sense won’t let us do without these oppositions. But their use is founded on a forgetting of the history of fiction: an amnesia about how the novel rose by undermining those very oppositions. English fiction-writers of the eighteenth century — Swift, Defoe, Richardson, Sterne — provoked interest, and unease, by faking travelogues, prison confessions, letters, lives and opinions: in other words, by forging autobiographies. It may be more than a coincidence that literary biography as a genre rose — with Samuel Johnson in England — at about the time when the novel became less concerned to impersonate autobiography. (The advent of Romanticism guaranteed that the individual life-story should be taken more earnestly.)


Good Book Literary Personality Truth Fiction Good Soldier Fictional Mode 
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© Max Saunders 1998

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  • Max Saunders

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