None so brave as a Greer biographer
A new Life risks the wrath of the controversial feminist – but it wasn’t really worth it, finds Anna Leszkiewicz
480pp, Scribe, £20, ebook £13.57
iterary biography has always upset its subjects. George Eliot declared biography the great “disease of English literature”. Alfred Tennyson reportedly called biographers “carrion vultures”, and said the form treated great men “like pigs to be ripped open for the public”, while Oscar Wilde named them “the mere bodysnatchers of literature”. But perhaps none has been so extreme in their violent metaphors as the second-wave feminist Germaine Greer, who in 1986 proclaimed biography a form of “rape… an unpardonable crime against self-hood”.
In 1994, she also called biographers of living subjects “the intellectual equivalents of the flesh-eating bacterium”: the effects of the bacterium’s “ineluctable activities” include “toxic shock, paralysis and death”. Referring to her own biographer Christine Wallace, Greer wrote: “I no more want to clap eyes on this individual than I want to study a slide of my intestinal flora […] Nobody actually wants to sit down and have an hour’s conversation with a tapeworm – but tapeworms have difficulty figuring this out.”
This is the poisonous environment the academic Elizabeth Kleinhenz wades into with her new book, Germaine. After the bile spat at Wallace, it’s a surprise that anyone volunteered to write a second biography. What’s more startling is that the book should turn out to be so anaemic.
Germaine Greer has long been a controversial figure: her careerdefining 1970 feminist text, The Female Eunuch, was mocked by opponents of “women’s lib” and critiqued by other prominent feminists, but adored by thousands of readers. In the decades since its publication, Greer has been seen by some as a daring last voice of a dismissed generation of feminists, and by others as a controversy-courting rent-a-gob, raging bigot, and failed Celebrity Big Brother contestant.
Kleinhenz does rattle through potentially shocking anecdotes: Greer’s one-night stand with filmmaker Federico Fellini, her decision to pose naked, baring “anus, vagina and face”, feuds with family and friends too numerous