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Don’t worry, Australian life-story writing is in excellent shape

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This year’s shortlist for the National Biography Award tells us loud and clear that Australian life-story writing is in excellent shape.

As one of the judges, stepping down now after three absorbing years, I am keen to hoist the flag for the genre. It may be just that having to read so many biographies and memoirs in such a short time made me better at it, and also better able to appreciate the really good ones. But it does seem to me that we are in a bit of a boom period for such writing.

There may be reasons for this, including the support to be found through various grants and stipends for life-story writing, essential for the long haul required for many biographies. Suzanne Falkiner’s Mick, about Randolph Stowe, and Tom D. C. Roberts’s Before Rupert, on Keith Murdoch, must have felt like a life sentence for the writers at various stages of their research and writing. Their persistence and determination have created extraordinary and important books.

Also pertinent to this particular shortlist is a willingness on the part of publishers to give hybrid forms of writing a go. In their different ways, Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful and Georgina Arnott’s The Unknown Judith Wright are both very bold, and Mahood’s especially would possibly have been dismissed as too lyrical or personal (too womanly, perhaps) just a few decades ago.

Even what looks, at first glance, a “standard” biography of a famous Australian – John Murphy’s Evatt – is exhilarating. While it’s good to be informed so well about Australian history, Murphy’s kind curiosity about this flawed man gently illuminates this narrative. We get to know just enough of the author without his intruding, or straying anywhere near that sticky territory where biography becomes “all about me”.

The huge interest in writing classes has encouraged people to write their memoirs, which is a good thing.

The final book on this list of six is the memoir of P. J. Parker, The Long Goodbye. Many such memoirs, about growing up somewhere tough, about grief, and about resilience are pretty dire. The huge interest in writing classes has encouraged people to write their memoirs, which is a good thing. Not so good is the urge that often follows – to publish those memoirs. You know how “everyone’s got a story to tell” and “everyone’s got a book in them”? Well, after a couple of hundred memoirs, I can say that many, if not most, memoir-writers should have left those books where they were – in them.

And yet, of course, the family memoir, now so easy to self-publish, has undeniable value both for the person who makes that effort, and for the family who have the opportunity to read about their history. The difference between the story thus told, and a book such as The Long Goodbye – and a number of others entered this year in the National Biography Award which narrowly missed out on being shortlisted – is the writerly quality that transforms a story into a work of art.

The winner of the National Biography Award will be announced at the State Library of New South Wales on Monday July 31.

One response to “Don’t worry, Australian life-story writing is in excellent shape

  1. I’m glad Australian memoir is thriving as I am writing a novel/memoir. It’s a big job but it’s been seriously valuable to examine my life and get events and experiences into context. Need to keep writing and get it done. Where one goes after that is a real puzzle to me… does one have to have an agent and if so how do you get one? But hey, that is the future and I think it is healthier just to enjoy the writing and the thinking that produces it.

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