Nigel Hamilton, the author of Biography: A Brief History, says technology is changing how we record our lives.
In Biography, you talk about biography expanding from books into other media: film, TV and the Internet.
I think that is the great story of biography in the 20th century. And I think that reflects a lot about our society, that people feel a strong need, not only to look at and interpret other people's lives, but to express their own lives. And the fact is, most people in the Western world today no longer get their biographical knowledge from books. They get it from television and radio and films, and from the Internet. That's the marvelous thing about Wikipedia. Every school kid can access a brief life of a significant person, and I think that's tremendous. So why push our heads into the sand?
There's always been curiosity about the individual life. But why have memoirs taken off lately?
There is an interesting confluence between a kind of social exhibitionistic outpouring facilitated by technology and academics, who have traditionally sniffed at biography, but rather welcome autobiography because it involves this whole business of narrative, identity, the human self.
You write of the recent, progressive violation of taboos in writing about sexuality and homosexuality, Are there any taboos in biography?
There are very few left. It's a pretty open field. If you look for an explanation of the great 19th-century realistic novels, whether it's Dickens or Tolstoy, it's because biographers were not allowed to write the real lives of their subjects. and what is so interesting for me as a biographer is to see how many fiction writers have become more and more interested in using the realm of nonfiction for their work, because there are no more taboos in biography.
You seem pretty easy on the issue of blending fiction and nonfiction.
I feel that biography has been hemmed in too much by tradition and convention. It's rather wonderful that we've removed them, as long as we're aware of what we're doing. The [James] Frey incident was unfortunate. But the fact is, narrative, whether it's biographical or autobiographical, involves memory and evidence, and in the end you just have to use your best judgment. There really isn't anything you can define absolutely as truth. That's why we're fascinated by these things. And it wasn't as though Frey got away with it. There are some people who feel there should be some, I don't know, a rather pompous moral denunciation of this sort of thing. I don't think it's necessary.