The biographical memoir is a newly emergent and highly successful form of life-writing. ‘Bio-memoirs’ are hybrid texts featuring both first-person memoir and biographical subjects: in Helen Macdonald’s bio-memoir, 'H is for Hawk', we discover as much about Macdonald as we do about T.H. White. (See my forthcoming ‘“Reclaiming” Tradition: An Exploration of Literary Influence in Helen Macdonald’s "H is for Hawk"’ in the 'Journal of Modern Literature'.)
The last decade has seen a proliferation of these texts in Britain. Despite the commercial success of bio-memoirs by Macdonald, Edmund de Waal, Olivia Laing, Adam Nicolson and others, there is little critical and theoretical discussion of the genre. An exploration of ‘bio-memoir’ is now due and this thesis will argue that it is most clearly delineated by three crucial innovations.
First, a novel concern with the body, materiality and visuality. These texts are characterized by the physical, haptic and visual presence of the biographer, drawing attention to important questions in the discipline about authorial practice and subjectivity.
Second, a major shift in the author’s role. In bio-memoir, the writing subject is a significant figure in the narrative, quite distinct from the biographical subject. This poses questions to longstanding preoccupations in literary theory over the role of the author. In addition, the presence of the subjective biographer contributes to enduring debates of legitimacy and authenticity in life-writing. Both these questions provide a new route into understanding contemporary authorship.
Third, bio-memoir reveals the powerful influence of television, social media and celebrity. In an interview I conducted, Kirty Topiwala, Non-Fiction Publisher at Hodder & Stoughton, pointed to the commercial appeal of authorial presence: ‘It feels in step with the age of blogging and social media’. In evaluating bio-memoir’s influences, we can uncover how cultural habits shape today’s literature, making this a significant and relevant study.