I’ve just started reading my Jan/Feb/Mar edition of the excellent quarterly magazine for women writers, Mslexia.
I was shocked to read that the judges for the Costa Book Awards 2010 announced in November that they had only been able to find three “biographies of merit” to shortlist this year. This is the award that has been won in the past by such excellent biographies as Clare Tomlin’s biography of Samuel Pepys (which I read and loved), not to mention stellar fiction such as The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, and Behind The Scenes At The Museum by Kate Atkinson, both first novels that more than deserved the exposure.
So why is it that they weren’t presented with more decent biographies this year? They insist that their choice of only three books was not intended to be taken as a comment on the state of biography writing in the UK today, but I can’t help wondering whether it has something to do with our current obsession with the lives of “celebrities”.
A quick search on Amazon for biographies released in 2010 brings up a dazzling array of celebrity biographies, including such unlikely subjects as Justin Beiber, the teenage US singing sensation, and current obsession of many “tweenagers”, who can hardly have had time to have enough of a life to warrant a full-length biography! Of course, there are the more cerebral ones, such as biographies of Mark Twain and Kate Adie, but the overwhelming bias is for celebrities, including singers, footballers and TV stars.
I’m not saying that there isn’t a readership for these sorts of books, or that they shouldn’t be being published. I myself have read the odd celebrity biography in the past, if it’s of someone I admire. What worries me is that publishers and booksellers, driven as they all seem to be these days by the promise of the “big buck”, will pass over a well-written and insightful biography of a great writer, or an ordinary person who had an extraordinary life, in favour of one of the latest famous-for-five-minutes “star”, which they know will sell in its billions within a few weeks of release. After all, you can’t be as sure of success with a biography of Virginia Woolf as you can with one of Katie Price.
This kind of short-term thinking seems to pervade every area of life these days. In the era of e-mail, social networking and instant messaging, we all want results straight away. Nurturing something new and untried means taking a risk on failure, and it’s not something that any of us seem prepared to do in these “pile-em-high, sell-em-quick” times.
This hunger for all things celebrity shows no signs of abating any time soon. I just hope that the world of publishing, book-selling and book reading doesn’t become irrevocably damaged by it.