- Writers' Biographies and Family Histories in 20th- and 21st-Century Literature ed. by Aude Haffen and Lucie Guiheneuf
In 1994, while delivering an anniversary address at the University of Tulsa, V. S. Naipaul made the following remark regarding writers' biographies: "The lives of writers are a legitimate subject of inquiry; and the truth should not be skimped. It may well be, in fact, that a full account of a writer's life might in the end be more a work of literature and more illuminating—of a cultural or historical moment—than the writer's books" (qtd. in French xiii). Although the name of the 2001 Nobel Prize Winner in Literature does not appear on any page of the edited collection Writers' Biographies and Family Histories in 20th- and 21st-Century Literature, his statement might well have been chosen by the book's editors for its motto, with Naipaul himself—who famously became the object of biographical revenge in Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents—as one of its chief protagonists.
The volume in question, edited by Aude Haffen and Lucie Guiheneuf, should certainly be recognized as a valuable addition to the current investigation of literary production at the turn of the twenty-first century, the golden days of life narrative but also "the golden age of author/reader interaction" (Ewen 13), as the character of Paul Ewen's ingenious novel rightly states. It appears to be no coincidence that only when the return of the author was officially acknowledged, did contemporary writers unashamedly become the objects of unprecedented (both qualitatively and quantitatively) biographical scrutiny, while also unanimously and abundantly engaging themselves in narrating their (or others') real-life stories. At the turn of the 1990s, the author/writer, considered by post-structuralism to be "the decrepit deity of the old criticism" (Barthes 211), started to speak "strangely to us […] through the fissures of seemingly impersonal and imperturbable prose" (Burke 7). Today, almost thirty years on, the writer is not only back and alive (both conceptually and pragmatically), but most importantly, more than willing to write some very personal prose. And (s)he is again the very focus of critical, readerly, and, most importantly, biographical attention, as I argue elsewhere (Kusek).
The editors of Writers' Biographies and Family Histories in 20th- and 21st-Century Literature appear to be acutely aware of the above-mentioned phenomena, as well as the contribution their volume is intended to make to both life writing and author/writer criticism. Ten essays (nine in English and one in French), as well as the introduction by Aude Haffen, are not only timely and well-grounded in the existing research on writers' auto/biographies, but might be recognized as genuinely concerned with the present-day challenges posed by life narratives (in particular with regard to their generic hybridity). In her introduction, Haffen emphasizes the book's ostensible tribute to queerness and heterodoxy, which should be seen especially in the volume's embrace of "new hybrid modes of biographical enquiries" (8). [End Page 890] Indeed, in the collection one will not find—as the rather unfortunate title might suggest—a singular generic mode consistently addressed throughout the whole monograph. Instead, and quite propitiously, the readers become acquainted with such diverse lifewriting forms as memoirs, specimens of biofiction and biodrama, biographical essays, and unorthodox (or "new") biographies. This heterogeneity is certainly one of the book's major assets. However, some objections could be voiced: the randomness of pieces selected for analysis (the reasons for including representatives of some "sub-genres" within life narratives and excluding others that prominently feature the lives of writers remain unspecified); their novelty (two essays have been published before in major life writing journals); as well as their limited thematic concerns (e.g., given the plethora of different types of "family" biographies written over the last two decades or so, it is unfortunate that the book prioritizes only matrio- and patriographies...