Manchester Literature Festival: Memoir & Biography

Manchester Literature Festival's 2015 programme reflects recent publishing trends with events focusing on the biographies of Eleanor Marx, John le Carré and Saul Bellow. The Skinny considers the rising prominence of biography and memoir

Feature by Holly Rimmer-Tagoe | 08 Oct 2015

The explosion of the first-person narrative is unavoidable: whether scrolling through the internet, browsing your local bookshop, or maybe even perusing an actual library shelf, it is difficult – nay, impossible – to dodge the trend of the omnipresent ‘I.’

First-person articles have spread across the blogosphere and are spewed out at the same speed as a factory line making carbon-copy smartphones. Memoirs from the likes of Karl Ove Knausgaard and Helen Macdonald have come to dominate shortlists for the big literature prizes, and biographies about the inner lives of famous and forgotten names continue to rise up bestseller lists.

We live in the age of the confessional where oversharing is not restricted to a darkly lit corner of a Catholic church, but has become a mere constant fixture of life. Indeed, the conditions that render the first-person point of view necessary aren’t as novel as we may expect. The emergence of the biographical genre as we know it starts in the 18th century – think steam engines and revolutions aplenty. The struggle for self and autonomy, in the political arena and the literary form, is now less about getting rid of a tyrannical monarch, and more about the creeping digital tyranny of CCTV and our maternal attachment to the mobile phone.

Millennials are struggling to define who they are in the face of an ever-present machine, identity politics continues to be the political raison d’etre, and the boom in self-publishing (coupled with the fading influence of traditional publishers) has democratised writing.

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Anaïs Nin asserted: “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” The personal reflections of biography and memoir live life twice by their very nature and, as such, deal with the question of individual bias, faults of memory and the delusion of self-presentation; fiction is forced to lie alongside fact. The reader comes face-to-face with an unreliable narrator and has to walk a faulty tightrope between truths and make-believe.

Literary bods have a habit of prophesising the death of memoir, which, to be fair, somewhat stems from the salvo of celebrity books acting as mere salad dressing to the latest promo opportunity. Other, more acerbic critics see the current popularity of memoir and biography as little other than the earmark of a self-obsessed generation eager to discover the intimate details of a grim life story – the publication of Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Angela’s Ashes led literary critics to coin a new genre, the ‘misery memoir.’

However, despite all the pre-prepared elegies, memoir has bypassed its commissioning overlords and demand continues to outstrip supply. Once again the literary establishment has been forced to play catch-up, and a raft of work from the likes of Samantha Ellis, Rebecca Mead and Henry Marsh proves the genre won’t be in need of the long-predicted funeral pyre any time soon.

It’s always easy to dismiss the study of the subject as a rent-a-gob/self-serving/mouthpiece opportunity, and yet the cultural phenomenon of ‘me’ taps into something much more profound and interesting. Namely, will the individual survive when we are all increasingly whittled down to our likes and dislikes and online shopping preferences, and our every move can be predicted by a simple set of algorithms? The search for identity and self is now more frantic than ever.

Manchester Literature Festival takes place on 10 Oct-25 Oct, times and locations vary