Sunday, 25 October 2009

When is a biography not a biography?

Julia and I drove down to Hampshire yesterday morning to stay with our old Richmond friends, Annabel and Adam. At teatime Annabel told us about a book of great interest to her and which she was sure, because of my current studies, would interest me.

They have both been stalwart members of the London Bach Choir since the sixties and over the years became close friends with its longtime conductor. Oxford University Press has recently published a book about him, Sir David Willcocks: a Life in Music.

She and Adam were two of the many people that were interviewed for the book. She said that all the interviews had been transcribed verbatim and the scripts then sent to each interviewee to check for accuracy and to give the opportunity to delete any portion of it.

There was a lively discussion about all this. I told Annabel, from my limited experience of transcribing interviews, how much editing of the spoken word is needed to render the text coherent and readable. She assured me that her interview had been transcribed accurately, as she remembered it, but agreed that she had not compared the text with the tape. Priscilla, another Richmond friend also down for the weekend, suggested that the book was not a biography but a memoir. I did not agree, but couldn't really suggest what it was. Could it really be called a biography, if it did not have at least some editorial commentary linking all the interviews together and if we are not told the criteria for excluding all or parts of the many interviews made?

All of this took place without having a copy of the book to hand or an internet link. Now that I am at home, I see that the exact title is A Life in Music -- Conversations with Sir David Willcocks and friends and that the publishers in the blurb here describe it as "a portrait of a highly gifted musician". Yes, but it is a portrait painted by many brushes, particularly that of the sitter. Without having yet seen the book, I currently think that the term that best fits it is a collage, a picture created from pasting many fragments together. Furthermore I surmise that, insofar as it is a biography, it is likely to resemble more a fulsome and one-sided Victorian biography which bathes the subject in sunlight and brush out its dark shadows, rather than the more rounded picture of a person that we have come to expect today.

Whatever you may call the book, the way that it has been put together and then packaged with a CD containing many of Sir David's recordings, represents a fascinating example of yet another way in which New Technology is affecting the creation of biographies.

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