Michael Lackey on the popularity of the biographical novel, and what it can tell us about the relationship between literature, history and truth
Michael Lackey, The American Biographical Novel (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Michael Lackey, The American Biographical Novel (Bloomsbury, 2016)

What motivated you to write The American Biographical Novel

Through my reading of biographical novels, I noticed a shift in the nature of literary truth.  In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad illuminates the colonial mentality that enabled Europeans to plunder Africa and to abuse Africans with impunity.  Conrad represents that mentality through Kurtz, and as the narrator says, “all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.”  In essence, if we want to understand the European mentality that justified colonization and its horrific outcomes, we can look to Kurtz for some answers.  But with the rise of postmodernism, there has been growing skepticism about the traditional literary symbol.

Put simply, postmodernists question the value of an overarching truth claim, because they realize that someone constructed that truth for an ideological or political reason.  This approach to truth impacted the traditional literary symbol, so a postmodernist could easily say: “Look, Joe, you constructed the character of Kurtz in order to promote your own ideological agenda.  Therefore, I don’t see any reason why I should consider a character like Kurtz as symbolic of the European mind.”It is my contention that biographical novelists were becoming increasingly aware of the problems with the traditional literary symbol, but they also did not want to get rid of the literary symbol, because they realized that it could be effectively used to expose the structures and conditions of oppression.  (more…)