Friday, February 08, 2013

Should traditional biography be buried alongside Shakespeare's breakfast?

A major conference of writers and academics is to discuss how biography should evolve in the age of the internet and Wikipedia

Biography blandness ... a traditional kipper. Photograph: Alamy

Leading authors including Shelley and Coleridge's biographer Richard Holmes and Claire Tomalin, recent chronicler of the life of Charles Dickens, are set to gather this weekend to debate whether the internet and the rise of Wikipedia have caused a crisis in modern biography.

A major conference at the University of East Anglia gathers biographers and academics from around the world to discuss the future of biography, and if the traditional, cradle-to-grave narrative is dying out. The debate comes as biography sales have slumped significantly in recent years, from a high of over 7.3m sold in 2006 to just 2.7m in 2012, according to book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan. The market overall has declined over the period, but Nielsen said that biography and autobiography sales have fallen "far more sharply". The autobiography category has done better than biography, it added, with the latter representing over 40% of the sector in 2001, and less than 30% by 2012.

"Can biography evolve to meet our current demands? Has the internet killed off the demand for the authoritative? In an age of bestselling celebrity memoir, does anyone still care what Shakespeare had for breakfast?" asked conference organiser Kathryn Holeywell, a postgraduate student at the university.

"There's a big anxiety among biographers these days – the Wikipedia anxiety," said Kathryn Hughes, professor of life writing at UEA and author of The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton and George Eliot: the Last Victorian. "The worry is that, if you can get all that information from Wikipedia, what's left for biography?"

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