Hermione Lee is one of the leading literary biographers in the English-speaking world, the author of widely acclaimed lives of Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf. Now, in this Very Short Introduction, Lee provides a magnificent look at the genre in which she is an undisputed masterthe art of biography. Here Lee considers the cultural and historical background of different types of biographies, looks at the factors that affect biographers, and asks whether there are different strategies, ethics, and principles required for writing about one person compared to another. She also discusses contemporary biographical publications and considers what kind of "lives" are the most popular and in demand. And along the way, she answers such questions as why do certain people and historical events arouse so much interest? How can biographies be compared with history and works of fiction? Does a biography need to be true? Is it acceptable to omit or conceal things? Does the biographer need to personally know the subject? Must a biographer be subjective?
Oxford's "Very Short Introductions" series offers concise overviews of central issues of a topic. Distinguished writer, reviewer, and biographer Lee (Virginia Wolfe; Edith Wharton) here examines the various forms of biography throughout history. Lee details the biography as an autopsy, a posthumous exercise in scrutiny, and a portrait that captures characterization, referencing many works of classic British biography to show the changes in the writing form from the Victorian era through the golden ages and modern times. Especially informative is the comparison of how various American biographers have presented their works on Marilyn Monroe, showing how a writer's style illuminates the subliminal relationship between the biographer and the subject. VERDICT Students of biography and writing will appreciate the broad overview packed into this succinct work.—Joyce Sparrow, Clearwater, FL