MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Writing Biography in the Digital Age

handwritten-letter

Another letter found buried in the archives: think of how the discovery of a little slip of paper covered in a quirky scrawl can suddenly light fires and get a bevy of scholars toiling away to reconsider an already-much-dissected literary life. So how do biographers cope with the overload of information in this digital age of electronic communication?

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin has published an interesting essay at The Millions, “You’ve Got Mail: On the New Age of Biography,” which takes up the issue of “the sudden digitization of the self, and the behavioral changes that have followed.”

How to decipher tone, often a challenge in conventional correspondence anyway, can require real virtuoso skill when it comes to the easily tossed-off exchanges of emails — particularly with a literary mind at work. “How does the rise of email change our understanding of great minds and great works. And why?” Ní Mhaoileoin ponders. Not to mention the data from social media — what a rabbit hole opens up when certain writers take to the Twittersphere…

But there’s also a loss:

The loss of handwriting, with all its eloquent untidiness, is a recurring anxiety for biographers and scholars, who have for so long relied on scratchings out, doodles, marginalia, and edits as clues to the author’s mind-set and process. Benjamin Moser described seeing in his subject’s handwriting, as one never could in an email, “how feverishly Sontag, given what looked like a death sentence when she was barely 40, sketched out the meditations on cancer that would become Illness as Metaphor.” Word processing, no matter how daring your font choice, erases individuality.

And the new data themselves aren’t necessarily as failsafe in “a digital fortress” as is often assumed: “[E]lectronic content actually faces far greater threats than traditional materials like diaries, files, and letters” from phenomena like “bit rot, unstable storage devices, technical failures, or systemic obsolescence…”

Ní Mhaoileoin once again turns to the example of Susan Sontag, noting the quirky tone she adopted in e-mails (sometimes sent with the subject line “Whassup?”). This apparently left her correspondents “unsure of how to interact with the iconic critic on such casual terms.” How should a potential biographer approach Sontag’s “playful, tender, slightly wacky” attitude when sorting through the evidence of her emails? Take them as confirmation of hints from her diaries — “that her intellect and reputation prevented her from receiving the love and tenderness she craved?”

The task of the biographer is to answer questions like these, with whatever sources are available. Lytton Strachey, who carried the genre from the stodgy tomes of the 19th century to the insightful explorations of the 20th, suggested in his preface to Eminent Victorians that the good biographer can “row over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up the light of day.” The rise of the e-mail may generate a host of practical and technical challenges, but the art of biography, as cherished by [Michael] Holroyd, need not suffer as a result.

Filed under: aesthetics, biography, literary criticism

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