By Maryam Thirriard (2015)
The first thing a newcomer to the study of life-writing would be likely to do is to set off in search of some references. This could give a sense of direction in this immense new territory. However, one soon discovers it is difficult to find a reference book or an ‘Oxbridge’ introduction to biography theory, or to life-writing in general. So one can only rejoice at the promise of the theoretical input presented in Theoretical Discussions of Biography written by Hans Renders and Binne de Haan. This collectively-written book provides important insights into the historical approach to biography and highlights the pertinent connections between biography and microhistory. However, it seems that the representation of biography in this book is much narrower than what the full scope of biography has to offer. The theory of biography needs to be broadened. The following considerations may seem general, but they reveal that the essentials still need to be addressed and that we have quite a way to go before we find a satisfactory framework in which to build a theory of biography.
Defining the terms
The aim of Theoretical Discussions of Biography is to provide the theoretical framework necessary for biography to achieve the status it deserves as an object of scientific study – a status to which the very tangible flourishing of departments of biographical studies in universities bears witness. One can only welcome such an undertaking. However, Renders and de Haan warn the reader of the price the discipline will have to pay: ‘biography as a research area belongs to history’ (Renders, 3). I am uncomfortable with this delimitation of biographical study, and feel that the field has shrunk from a myriad of life-writing productions of all shapes and forms to what seems more like a private club.