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Biography 24.4 (2001) 806-826

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"Blurbing" Biographical: Authorship and Autobiography

Kate Douglas


Especially with the growth of new media, and amid the boom in representations of self and life in literature and popular culture, questions of authorship continue to be keenly debated. This interest in the ways artists and consumers are positioned in relation to knowledge and creativity has been spurred by the increased attention given to notions of artistic origins and narrative ownership, particularly in recent autobiographical discourse. There is significant work encompassing the effects of scholarly criticism upon the figure of the author. Despite its public visibility, however, book publicity, and its particular significance to discussions of authorship, is one issue that has remained mostly unexamined. Such an examination unveils an interesting contradiction. At a time when two, or perhaps even three generations of literary theorists have primarily been raised on the notion that the biography of the author is almost irrelevant to the text, in the contemporary world of book publication and marketing, the author has if anything become even more crucial to a book's success.

Such disparities between academic and commercial literary reception have of course been well noted over the years. Eric Homberger and John Charmley assert that "everywhere in academic life the subtle, [and] the not-so-subtle denigration of biography grows apace," as "influential voices tell us that the 'author' is dead, and that biographical study of a writer or artist is either irrelevant or not fully serious" (ix). Yet publishers and critics agree that, for better or worse, the production and popular consumption of life writing, and interest in the biographical details of contemporary authors, are experiencing a notable boom. As Hilary McPhee argues, "life-writing is now a profitable enterprise for publishers. The readership is growing all the time. First person narratives, especially those by 24-years-old footballers, sell much [End Page 806] better than novels" (4). There is little doubt that in the promotion of popular culture, "the personal" is profitable. Even in academic publishing, authors are increasingly being marketed by having prominent, professional photographs on their book jackets, or by making public appearances on talk shows, public panels, or conferences. As Paul John Eakin notes, it is very common for critics to be drawn into giving autobiographical accounts of their involvement in particular theoretical pursuits (xxiv). 1 And one of the most frequently asked questions at writers festivals is to what extent fictional works are autobiographical. Thus, in an age when writers and writing are commonly categorized according to fiction or non-fiction, gender, culture, age, and so on, by transgressing other genres autobiography as a literary form is finding itself more often than not implicated within theoretical discussions and popular culture critiques of literature. The significance of autobiography has in fact been a subject of much debate among literary scholars in recent decades, and Philippe Lejeune's "Autobiographical Pact" offers one explanation of how and why readers respond to autobiographical writing. The autobiographical pact involves the textual assertion that the author, narrator, and protagonist are the same. In making this self-reference, the author enters into an agreement with readers that they will be reading about an actual person whose existence is legally verifiable (Lejeune 11).

The contemporary publishing industry is able to take this one step further by making public assertions that a text is autobiographical when publicizing it. Publicists and sellers of autobiographies agree that one of the keys to the successes of such texts is the connections they make between author and reader (see McPhee, Winters, and Gray). Autobiographies, according to popular discourse, offer insight into the lives of individuals (as community members). Their disclosures, interpretations, and records of experiences are thought to provide capital for readers to decipher their own life experiences. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson examine how life writing produces and reproduces discourses of community, arguing that "autobiographical narratives, their citation, and their recitation have historically been one means through which the imagined community . . . constitutes itself on a daily basis" (4). In the community that consumes autobiographical writing, how is the author positioned, and...