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The seven deadly sins of biography

Biography has never been so popular as it is now. There is widespread misunderstanding about what biography actually is, however. According to Hans Renders, something often goes wrong in the writing of a biography. Renders, Director of the Institute of Biography of the University of Groningen, will be giving his inaugural lecture, 'De zeven hoofdzonden van de biografie' [The seven deadly sins of biography], on 4 March 2008.


Although the current popularity of the biography is encouraging, it does have a down side. That’s why Renders, when accepting the chair in the History and Theory of Biography, endowed by Stichting Media en Democratie [the Democracy and Media Foundation], is going to speak about the virtues and the vices of biography. His inaugural lecture will examine the misunderstandings concerning biography and provide the discipline with a tradition.


Footballer’s biography

Biographies have been immensely popular in recent years; life stories appear to be functioning more and more as a measure of popularity. ‘Priests, politicians, footballers and chefs – they’re all publishing biographies’, according to Renders. ‘Apparently the status of a biography is very high. But what many people do not realise is that most of these descriptions are created together with those priests, footballers, etc. That’s not really a problem but it should be stated much more clearly.’ According to Renders, cooperation with the person being described will never result in a good biography. ‘In addition, a book written during the person’s life can never be the definitive biography. President Sarkozy of France already is the subject of a biography, even though he’s still actually got to start his work.’


Deadly sins  

Renders is in favour of more clarity concerning the concept of biography. ‘You often hear someone saying that a certain biography felt like a novel. That’s nonsense and rather strange because it is not literature. There’s thus a certain ambiguity in what we expect. That’s why my lecture will examine a number of misconceptions that together illustrate the seven deadly sins of biography.’ With the seven classic Christian deadly sins in the back of his mind (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth), Renders suggests an arrangement that also does justice to the seven virtues of biography.


Fact or fiction?

Renders characterizes two forms of biography: the traditional, memorial biography and the critical, interpretive biography. ‘The traditional variant has its roots in the lives of saints and encyclopaedic dictionaries,’ he explains. ‘The interpretive variant emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century, under the influence of opinion journalism.’ In Renders’s view, interpretation, placing the person described in context, is a necessary condition for a good biography. With the help of examples from at home and abroad, his inaugural lecture illustrates how the borders between fiction and non-fiction have become blurred.


Institute of Biography

The Institute of Biography of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Groningen is the first of its kind in the world. It answers the need for theory formation about biographies and supports biographers. In 2007, the much praised biography of J.C. Bloem by Bart Slijper appeared under the auspices of the institute. Current projects include biographies of Loe de Jong and Helene Kröller-Müller. In early March, a collection of articles entitled De Ondernemersbiografie. Mythe en Werkelijkheid. [Entrepreneur Biography. Myth and Reality] will be published by Uitgeverij Boom in cooperation with the Institute of Biography.


Curriculum Vitae

Hans Renders is Director of the Institute of Biography of the University of Groningen. He studied History and Dutch in Tilburg and Nijmegen and his PhD (Tilburg) concerned biographical research: Zo meen ik dat ook jij bent. Biografie van Jan Hanlo (1998) [I believe that you’re like that too. Biography of Jan Hanlo]. Six years later, Wie weet slaag ik in de dood. Biografie van Jan Campert [Perhaps I’ll be successful dead. Biography of Jan Campert] and Gevaarlijk drukwerk. Een vrije uitgeverij in oorlogstijd. [Dangerous prints. A free publishing company during the war] appeared. Renders has been a coeditor of Inktpatronen. De Tweede Wereldoorlog en het boekbedrijf in Nederland en Vlaanderen (2006). He is a critic for Media Facts, Het Parool, Vrij Nederland and the VPRO radio programme OVT. In addition, he is coeditor of a series which examines the theory of biography; Het leven van een doodsbericht, Privé in de politieke biografie, Biografie & Psychologie have already appeared.
Last modified:16 October 2012 11.25 a.m.
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