- Truth Contracts
There is a long history of denigrating the biographical novel: it can seem too reliant upon history for those who value the imagination, and too imaginative for those who value history. Perhaps rather predictably, the denigration of this form was given its most powerful expression by Georg Lukács, who measured it against his ideas about the historical novel. Instead of showing us how historical processes really work, Lukács claimed, the biographical novel preoccupies us with subjectivity in a way that is distracting. It was not until the last decade of the twentieth century, inspired by new ideas about how to value historical fiction (such as Linda Hutcheon's The Politics of Postmodernism (1989)), that serious scholarly attention was given to this form, with key texts including Ina Schabert's In Quest of the Other Person: Fiction as Biography (1990), Martin Middeke and Werner Huber's Biofictions (1999), John Keener's Biography and the Postmodern Historical Novel (2001), and Beverley Southgate's History Meets Fiction (2001). What Michael Lackey brings to this discussion is a strong impulse to establish biographical fiction as a clearly defined object for literary appreciation and scholarly enquiry. Prior to this book he edited a useful collection of interviews with practising biographical novelists; going along with it there has been a very energetic series of MLA panels, conferences, and edited collections. He is a passionate advocate for the biographical novel, and his advocacy is founded on arguments about the particular characteristics that constitute biographical fiction as a genre unto itself.
Because of the admirable directness with which Lackey pursues his claims, The American Biographical Novel manifests both the strengths and the problems of a genre-based approach to literature with particular clarity. One of the book's main strengths is Lackey's insistence that biographical fiction is not just sloppy biography, and that expectations set by one genre should not be used to denigrate the other. In a way that is reminiscent of Philippe Lejeune's concept of an 'autobiographical pact', it is argued that we can distinguish between the different 'truth contracts' that authors implicitly make with their readers when they are writing biography and [End Page 270] when they are writing biographical fiction. The difference is not between truth and lies, but between forms of knowledge: the truth of the particular life, versus the more generalisable or symbolic kinds of meaning that belong to fiction. 'Biographical novelists differ from biographers', he claims, 'because, while authors of traditional and fictional biographies seek to represent the life (or a dimension of the life) of an actual historical figure as clearly and accurately as possible, biographical novelists forgo the desire to get the biographical subject's life "right" and rather use the biographical subject in order to project their own vision of life and the world' (p. 80). There is a great deal of common sense to this distinction, as Lackey demonstrates in an impressively researched chapter which compares Ray Monk's biography of Wittgenstein (The Duty of Genius (1990)) with Bruce Duffy's biographical novel about him (The World as I Found It (2010)). Here the discussion turns on some remarks Wittgenstein made about Jews and his own Jewishness which Monk treats in a very circumspect and delimited way, but which Duffy uses as the starting point for a novel that explores the themes of racism and complicity, in which scenes and characters are freely invented so as to heighten the symbolic stakes. Lackey is on strong ground here, not least because Monk himself has explicitly defined biography as a 'nontheoretical activity' that should document rather than explain a life (he has criticised, for instance, Sartre's theoretically venturesome biographies of Flaubert and Genet). The contrast Lackey draws with Duffy's use of Wittgenstein's life to explore 'a racist structure that exists in a wide variety of peoples, places, and times' is very sharp and insightful.
A further strength of the book lies in Lackey's main value argument about the biographical novel as a form that emerges out of the...