A leading man of letters subjects a popular contemporary genre to thoughtful scrutiny
John Updike lays out his skeptical, yet generous, reflections on reading and writing about the lives of literary figures. Asking what satisfactions literary biography may offer readers, he decides that "the first and perhaps the most worthy" is in allowing us to continue and expand our acquaintance with an author who interests us, so that we may "partake again, from another angle, of the joys we have experienced within the author's oeuvre." He tells of finding in a biography of Proust the solid details of what he had previously encountered through that writer's subjective sensibility, but he acknowledges that there can be other reasons for attending to the genre. If the reader is also a writer, a desire to learn the details of a fellow's craft may come into play. Or "in a diagnostic mood," readers may seek to relate features of a writer's achievement to the psychological and physical circumstances in which it occurred. Some of us, some of the time, may also take pleasure in seeing the human flaws of writers exposed and in watching as the literary mentality is turned to show an unsavory side. Updike calls one variant of the biography that uncovers personal failings the Judas biography—by which he means an unflattering portrait by a former friend or spouse. To readers of such accounts, whom he describes as accomplices in their creation, he grants the defense of desiring to get to a truth behind the artfulness of the fiction writer.
Declaring his own disinclination to be the subject of biographical treatment, he imagines a biographer "disturbing my children, quizzing my ex-wife, bugging my present wife, seeking for Judases among my friends, rummaging through yellowing old clippings, quoting in extenso bad reviews I would rather forget, and getting everything slightly wrong." A particular apprehension he mentions is the frequency with which those who write about others misstate basic facts—an apprehension justified by the errors he is aware of in published assertions about his own life and background. Still, Updike's alertness to the risks of literary biography is yoked with the recognition that the genre can lead readers back to an author's works, if at times by a "nether route," and that in improving our access to literature, it "does perform useful work."
John Updike has shared in some of the preoccupations of writers of literary biography in his trilogy on the fiction novelist Henry Bech—Bech: A Book, Bech Is Back, and Bech at Bay.