Roz Kaveney trawls through the lives of the great (and the not so great)

There is no heaven or hell; there are, however, biographers . . . If we live after our deaths, it is as mimed selves in the memories and dreams of our friends; if we continue after their deaths, it is because someone wrote us well. Death makes real people into fictions; Dr Johnson is no longer more real than Falstaff, Virginia Woolf than Emma.

Not bad company, to be sure, but not to be confused with life; Heine said it was better to be the smuggest little Stuttgart bourgeois alive than to be Achilles, the shining one, among the dead . . . It is this streak of the eschatological in the profession of biography that gives it both its dignity and its slightly disreputable side. Biographers are chief mourners, but they are also paid mourners.

When Ben Pimlott (NS, 6 November) talks about the subject of biography being the servant of the project, it is too much like undertakers thinking of funerals as self-expression. I wouldn't want to be sawn in half just because the undertaker saw himself as Damien Hirst. Neither would I want to be ripped to shreds because the biographer fancied herself a hanging judge. Patricia Morrisoe's biography of Robert Mapplethorpe, for instance, is good on the facts, low on empathy, and bent out of shape about SM.

There is a lot to be said, though, for the biographer who investigates. Michael Asher follows sand-filled footsteps in his Lawrence (Viking, £20) and does some worthwhile clarification on the question of just how much his subject lied in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The answer is quite a lot; and yet Asher has come away from the exercise full of admiration. Lawrence exaggerated, but the raid on Aqaba remains. Asher is a former SAS man with a degree in literature - a promising CV for writing about Lawrence - and it is useful to have the sites of the fights that Lawrence commissioned and then described gone over with a soldier's critical eye. Lawrence was an incurable self-mythologiser: he inflated his role and his successes because that was what he was like, but also because it gave him greater standing in the fight for Arab rights. This is a version of the doctrine in casuistry called "double effect", where you juggle two purposes so that the less morally disreputable is to the fore at all stages.

Likewise, the almost forgotten John Barrow commissioned British Arctic expeditions as much to find a peacetime role for the navy (and continued employment for himself) as out of any territorial ambition. Fergus Fleming's cutely titled Barrow's Boys (Granta, £20) takes us, with a sardonic tone as reminiscent of Strachey or Gibbon as anything more recent, through the exploits of the sea-captains and others who did Barrow's bidding in search of the North-west Passage or along the Niger and into the Sahara. As they struggle back with frostbite and malaria, with tales of uncooperative Inuit and the unabashedly larcenous inhabitants of Timbuktu, the bumptious Regency world gradually shades into a more idealistic Victorian one. It is a world to which the seafarers return as strangers. While he clearly loathes Barrow, in a quiet way, Fleming is bitchy about Victorian priggishness, sometimes falling into contemporary cant - it is all a bit "Men Who Love Travelling Too Much and the Women Who Wait for Them". When he has real meat to deal with - the death of Franklin, say - he does not transcend the biographic and travel genres. He just writes them very well.

Some biographies are unambitious and solid - and completely miss the point. David Solway's Nureyev (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20) is a good example of a book into which the biographer has disappeared so totally as to be embarrassing in his self-effacement. It is the kind of life that tells you all the facts but from which both subject and author are absent; the former, presumably, because of the latter. If one does not care passionately about Nureyev as dancer or gay icon already, one is not going to be made to do so by this book.

Given that the tone of biography is usually an extension of the funereal, there is always something a bit odd about biographies of the living. John Baxter's Woody Allen (HarperCollins, £19.99) feels like a summing up even though its subject is still alive and still producing. The point is that it is unlikely now that Allen will ever significantly surprise us with his work, just produce some films that are good and some that are not. Baxter is magisterial on the subject of Allen's private life, which is to say that he is equally snotty about everyone involved, except Diane Keaton.

Odder still is Vincent Bockris's Patti Smith (Fourth Estate, £16.99). The issue here is that Smith did almost all the work for which she is remembered during a short burst 20 years ago: three remarkable albums and a body of outlandish expressionist verse. Then, after the death of her husband in 1994, she went back into the studio and produced Gone Again, which is perhaps her finest work. When an artist moves into a new and remarkable phase after a long near-silence, it is perhaps not the best time to write their biography. There are reticences about the marriage and the reasons for that silence with which Bockris cannot deal, which means that the book feels full of what is not being said about Fred Smith's drinking and jealousy of a more talented wife. Whereof it would be intrusive to speak, thereof we should perhaps shut up.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Just get out and have fun!