Biography may seem to be accepted today as just one of many genres that readers expect to find in libraries and bookstores, but it is not universally endorsed. In the academic world, biography has been denounced as a "dumbing down" of history. Scholars have been especially critical of the stories of individuals overshadowing the collective experience of the masses. Many famous people, particularly novelists Henry James and Albert Camus, have condemned biographers as "grave robbers" and exploiters who write about the defenseless dead. Critics of the genre say that biographies tells more about biographers than their subjects and that all biographies tell selected stories. From reading Biography: A Very Short Introduction by Hermione Lee, one may grasp that biography has had a tough time critically. With readers, however, biography has always been popular.
Every history of biography seems to start in a different time. Lee starts with the Epic of Gilgamesh from 2600 BCE and includes Egyptian, Greek, Roman, medieval, and Enlightenment life-story writings. She continues with an assessment of the nineteenth century as a period with less uniformity than previous genre historians have suggested; she agrees that most biographies of both the United States and Great Britain of the time do glorify their subjects for patriotic reasons, but she also reveals an undercurrent of dissenting biographers starting to write "warts and all" lives. Lee describes the twentieth century, in the wake of Freudian psychiatry, as the golden age of realistic biography.
What Lee tells us in her small book is not new. Numerous histories of biography have covered the same ground, but Lee does it well. She identifies many classic and contemporary titles that may be offered to readers, and she even recommends different ways to start writing biographies. Her quick reading, inexpensive book is a good addition to most libraries.
Lee, Hermione. Biography: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 9780199533541.