What’s top of the loan list at libraries? What regularly rides high among the bookshop best sellers? Nothing less than that literary equivalent of a reality show, the biography. The life story, a tale pulled from the real world, from tangible events featuring named and actual people. How easy are these things to write? Very, if the number turned out by minor celebrities, pop singers, politicians and sports persons of every stripe is anything to go by. It doesn’t matter, it seems, how your earlier academic life might have gone. If you are famous then, by definition, you can write. Check out some of these wonders, they read like liquid gold.
The reality is, of course, that most are ghost written. The famous person’s manager sets it up. The famous persons speaks, the ghost takes notes. The book comes out and a million pounds are earned. The world simply can’t get enough of the truth behind the glitter. Or what they are told is the truth. And what might, to some, be glitter.
But not all biographies are done this way. Many are simply the product of a determined writer’s desire to tell a good story. John Williams’ recent biographies of Michael X and Shirley Bassey are cases in point. Both tell the tale of people who have had interesting and pertinent lives. And Williams recounts their stories with aplomb.
However, not everything always goes to plan. Here’s Dawn French: “I have had the unfortunate experience of having someone write an unauthorised biography of me. Half of it is lies and the other half is badly written. My feeling is that if I'm going to write my life story, I ought to have my life first.” Or, as Chris Eubank said when asked if he had ever considered writing an autobiography, “On what?”
These and some other problems that you may have encountered when trying to tell your own or someone else's story were the centrepiece of Literature Wales's Writing For Life conference at Blaenavon over the weekend. Howard Marks was the star, a man gone well beyond biography and now writing creative fiction. But it was Dai Smith who stole the show.