‘Something deep’ – a few thoughts on reading, and on books about books

This was first written for what I thought at the time was World Book Day.

Turns out 23 April used to be World Book Day. It isn’t any more. It’s now earlier in the year. Forget when. The brain’s a bit foggy right now, for boring medical reasons I won’t trouble anyone with.

But here’s a little something I put together earlier, for the World Book Day that turns out to be Not World Book Day.

‘Something strange began to happen. I felt as if I was in on the inside of the book, a spotlight trained on something deep inside me.’

That comment is from author Picot Ayer and is quoted in David Lodge’s ‘Lives in Writing’ and it reminds me of what it was like discovering books as a kid.

Getting totally submerged, at a level of depth it was difficult to surface from. There were a couple of times at school, early in the afternoon, the teacher would notice I was missing & despatch a classmate to the library as I wouldn’t have heard the bell.

I seldom get that feeling these days. The ability to completely immerse yourself in something, to the exclusion of what is going on around you, is a gift of childhood we lose as we get older, if only for the necessary reason that as we get older there are too many things to juggle in the mind.

By the time you become a parent, it is – or should be, if you’re doing your duty  – almost impossible. If you’re fortunate and organised, you might be able to fence off some times for that kind of happy, oblivious focus.

lodge careyUntil the offspring comes roaring in to announce how many marbles they can get up the right nostril, or something similar.

For novels, too, I think it became difficult after formal study, for me anyway.

A stint studying law changed how I read,  and it took years to unlearn. It was a new, laborous and joyless way of tracing words across the page, reading interminable cases and distinguishing between how one distinguished judge distinguished between one set of facts and the legal principles as applied therein, and another set of facts.

Studying law, however fruitlessly, taught me some useful things, the most important of which was probably that I’d be a lousy lawyer – but it buggered up my ability to enjoy reading for years.

The other reason, also linked at least a bit to formal study, was that my time at Uni coincided with the high noon of  the unfortunate influence of literary theory on the modern novel.

I considered doing a double Politics/English major, but one – well, a few – looks at this literary theory nonsense was enough to make me wish for the death of a few more authors.

I find all too often now I’m reading books about books, when it comes to novels, rather than the novels themselves. I’ve had a recent bash at some of the canonical novelists I managed to miss during what for the sake of form we’ll call my education – Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Thomas Hardy.

Actually, in the case of Conrad, I picked up ‘The Secret Agent’ in the school library when I was in 7th form, and recall being a bit disappointed at the decided paucity of shoot’em up heroics or sexy undercover women spies.

Oh, and I did read Heart of Darkness at Uni. It was kind of compulsory, in the ’80s, if only because we all knew Apocalypse Now was kind of an updated version of the book, or meant to be, anyway.

Henry James seems to take a while to get to the point – always assuming there is a point to get to and we’ll set that issue to one side for now – and what I’ve read so far reminds me of Jane Austen: I can appreciate the deftness and cleverness of the writing but I have a mental foot tapping away going O for crying out loud GET ON WITH IT.

Hardy isn’t, so far, as depressing as I’d been led to believe but maybe that’s just me.

So – a couple of recent books on books I’ve read…

Both are, in their different ways, rather rude about the influence of literary theory on the novel. And quite right, too.

David Lodge points out that theory’s importance has been overestimated, mostly by theoreticians whose progress through academia depends on it.

Literary theory, he says, is

‘almost exclusively an academic pursuit, driven by professional as well as intellectual motivations. In a period when the university job market became increasingly competitive it provided an array of impressive meta-languages with which academics in the humanities could win their spurs and demonstrate their professional mastery. But to anyone outside the arena – the educated general reader, for instance – the excruciating effort of construing this jargon-heavy discourse far exceeded the illumination likely to be gleaned from it, so they stopped reading it, and nonspecialist media stopped reviewing it, which was bad both for academia and culture in general.’

I’ve added emphasis on ‘the educated general reader, for instance’ because it is this group of people – or rather, perhaps, the intelligent general reader (there are plenty such readers who have never darkened a university lecture hall’s door) – upon whom literature and in fact wider culture depends.

I’d go even further: one of the faults of a university education is it can, if one does not keep ones wits about one, lead one to take some ideas too seriously: ideas which should be greeted with derisive laughter and indeed often are by the aforementioned intelligent general reader. But I’m digressing a bit, again, in what I admit is a fairly rambling blog entry.

Carey’s memoir covers similar ground to Lodge: he traverses his landmark and controversial The intellectuals and the masses, which was published in the mid-1980s and annoyed all the people it should have.

Here was this English literary academic , trenchantly attacking English literature academia for snobbishly trying to pull up the intellectual bridge behind itself. Who let this pleb up to the Top Table? Was the general tenor of much of the response

Carey’s theme, which he revisits here in part, is that the rise of mass literacy caused intellectuals to respond in hostile fashion, resenting the ‘semi literate’ masses. This, he argues, led to all manner of unhealthy preoccupations such as the popularity of eugenics among such intellectuals as DH Lawrence HG Wells and WB Yeats. He suggests the move to make high culture more inaccessible was also part of this response.

‘They created what we now call modernist literature, which cultivates obscurity and depends on learned allusions, comprehensible only to the highly educated.’

The same drive for obscurity and inaccessibility occurred in other art such as painting and music and he backs this up with quotes from everyone from TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, EM Forster, and Aldous Huxley.

He must have had a ball, going through that little lot. Rather him than me.

The response from his fellow English academics, or most of them, anyway, ways, he says “howls of fury” with  reviewers “beside themselves with rage”.

In other words, he’d hit a bullseye.

Both he and Lodge write about writers they like as well as those they don’t. I was drawn to them for different reasons – Lodge because he’s written some very enjoyable novels, and Carey because he wrote a damn good biography of William Golding, whose works I’ve only really discovered in the past few years.

Carey seems to like D H Lawrence: I don’t, but I like the general principle he elucidates here –

‘To believe Lawrence’s writing is dangerous is to assume that readers just suck it in uncritically, and it would be a strange reader who did that.  Literature functions by making us imagine what it would be like to be someone else, inhabiting another body, thinking other thoughts.  Lawrence is able to bring that about because he writes with such passionate conviction. The force of his ego drenches you like a monsoon.’

And he is quietly amusing on the perils of book reviewing:

‘Reviewers can make enemies… A prominent man of letters refused to shake hands with me when we were introduced because he thought I had given a bad review to a book of his in revenge for a bad review he had given to one of mine. Assuring him I hadn’t read his review only made it worse.

Ah, well.

The David Lodge book is a collection of essays on writers and writing: it has, mostly, the kind of deft wit and humanity he’s brought to his own novels. John Carey’s book is more a memoir, mostly focused on his writing and on writers.

Both pay reading by that intelligent reader I mentioned above, and both can be dipped into and read a chapter or two at a time if you, like myself these days. find it seldom possible to immerse yourself into a book in the way described above by Iyer.

Factories of empire

The Prose Factory by D J Taylor (Random House 2015)

The Great British Dream Factory by Dominic Sandbrook (Penguin 2015)

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‘No one over the age of 40 – no one at any rate old enough to have experienced a literary world made up entirely of books, newspapers and reference libraries – can roam the world of the blogosphere and the online symposium without thinking that there is too much of everything – too many books, too much criticism of them, too many reviews, too many opinions, too many reading groups, too many book clubs, so many literary prizes that any vaguely competent novel comes garlanded with two or three endorsements from the judging committees, that we are drowning in a sea of data where an instant reaction is always liable to crowd out mature reflection, where anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s and the fact that the distinguished man of letters in the Wall Street Journal thinks McCarthy’s The Road is a work of genius is of no interest at all to the Amazon reviewer who awards a single star for a “lack of bite”.’

Well, there is definitely too much of that sentence, but you can see what he’s getting at.

It comes towards the end of D J Taylor’s The Prose Factory, which covers the history of English literary affairs and business from 1918 through to roughly present day.

It is full of ideas about writing, the business of writing,  and by that I mean both the often neglected financial side, and also what writers were really concerned with, as opposed to what they said they were concerned with.

There is a great section on the rise of what was known as “the middle article” – light essays on literature or culture more generally  in newspapers  from roughly the 1920s onwards.

Such articles were still  common in British newspapers when I became a junkie in the mid-1980s – or at least the broadsheets such as the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Observer and the Sunday Times.

The ‘middle article’ became the vehicle for maintaining liberal values just as, in the political sphere, the liberal tradition became threatened.  Essayists as diverse as GK Chesterton or AG Gardner or JB Priestley kept this tradition  going –  a tradition which included the attitudes of universality tolerance and diversity of subject matter.

One essayist is described by Taylor, delightfully, as reviewing James Joyce’s Ulysses from ‘the angle of one who suspects that Ulysses has merit but can’t quite see it himself’.

This got me thinking  about the blogosphere because… Well of course it did. Back  when blogs became a thing,  about a dozen years or so ago,  I likened them to the old 18th and 19th-century pamphleteers:  partisan,  often puerile,  and occasionally very personal.

There has, in the past few years, developed a sort of second wave of blogs in New Zealand (and no doubt elsewhere) which is less concerned with politics and more with wider issues.

There is still a highly political element,  but it manages – a fair amount of the time, anyway –  to avoid the juvenile and extremely boring ‘Ya Boo Lefties! ‘Ya Boo Righties!’ face pulling behaviour which became synonymous with blogging for a long time.

I think this “middle article”  style seems not a bad description of the second wave.

Taylor is good  – very good in fact, if very  acerbic –  about the sheer snobbery of many writers,  with  those espousing radical politics being the most snobbish of the lot.

The chapter on the 1930s  – “The Pink Decade”   points out that champions of working class amongst the intelligentsia seldom admitted actual members of the working class to their salons and that when they tried things seldom turned out well.  There is a heartbreaking anecdote of Sid Chaplin,  one of the few working-class writers,who was published being invited to George Orwell’s house and making it as far as the doorway before fleeing in terror.

He also has the occasional go at the more anti-intellectual tradition of English letters,  but points out that even this,  once upon a time,  could draw on a background of shared cultural and intellectual heritage.

The mid-20th Century  battleground between ‘modernists and traditionalists, of highbrows and lowbrows,  of middle-class reactionaries, as Orwell once put it, thanking God they were not born brainy…’ was real enough,  but, as he says, even conservative critics of T S Elliot’s ‘The Wasteland’  could pick up the classical allusions. That isn’t so now.

There is the ongoing problem of funding literature:  ‘put an entity charged with expanding public take-up of literature in the hands of a bureaucrat, and the literature itself is all too easily lost sight of. Put it in the hands of other writers and the first casualty is likely to be a grasp of practical reality.’

There is, perhaps naturally, quite a bit on two writers who have written a lot about writers: the two friends who were often mistaken for each other, Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge.

Bradbury I’ve only recently started reading although I’ve certainly been aware of him for some years – Taylor heralds as a kind of chronicler of the strange death, not so much of Liberal England as of the less definable, and much more important, set of broad liberal ideas and attitudes. Bradbury is, he says,

Bradbury is, he says

‘an elegist for an ethical code in severe danger of being swamped, a dazzling intellectual high wire act or even – to lower the bar a bit – is top-notch slapstick comedian in the Kingsley Amis mould. His real achievement, you suspect, rests on his ability to show just how formidable a force the old-style liberal humanists can be – even here in a wind and ground down world, somewhere in that endlessly contested space between the end of the Cartesian project and the beginning of the World Wide Web.’

Bradbury’s compatriot and friend David Lodge has a slightly different approach and has a lovely line about how Lodge

‘clearly isn’t averse to dressing up in the glad rags of literary theory, but on this, and other, evidence he wouldn’t want to wear it next to his skin.’

And that brings us to the issue of literary theory which haunted the study of English when I was at university in the late 80s and which was one of the main reasons I steered clear of an English major.  I figured if I was going to do political theory I would rather have the real thing.

And here we go full circle, back to the snobbery of the Bloomsbury-ites and their fellow modernists. There is a thorough and by no means one-sided discussion of critic John Carey and his attack on modernism, post-modernism, structuralism, post-structuralism, and literary theory generally, and Taylor does conclude that all too often 20th century literature has acted for minorities and elites to the exclusion of a large potential of readers of ordinary intelligent people who have developed, over the years, thoroughly understandable dislike of ‘culture’ and the ‘cultured’.

‘The “literary novel” … would sell far more copies and attract far more attention beyond newspaper books pages if it didn’t habitually come served with a light sauce of snootiness – if in fact, it didn’t refer to itself as a literary novel in the first place.’

 

 


Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role — that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being head of a ‘commonwealth’ which has no political structure, or unity, or strength — this role is about played out. 

 

So spoke former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson in the early 1960s. Acheson  was of course discussing foreign policy, and the comments came at the time the British government was edging towards joining what was then called the European Economic Community and which we now know as a European Union.

And of course we also now though British voters opted to leave Europe last month,  even if we –  and they – still don’t quite know what that vote means.

Acheson  almost  definitely did not have in mind the kind of role Dominic Sambrook outlines in The Great British Dream Factory.

That role  is as a kind of middlebrow entertainer to the world.  Books, true,  play a sizeable part  in this role.

 

 

Sandbrook is though  more enamoured of film, television, and music –  a chapter on the country house is more interested in the film and television examples  than the literary ones.

Brideshead Revisited  certainly features,  but Sandbrook is more interested in the 1981  television series than  the original Evelyn Waugh novel (not one of Waugh’s best efforts, in my view, but still).  While P G Wodehouse and Agatha Christie get a look in,  it is the global phenomenon of Downton Abbey which really generates Sandbrook’s  enthusiasm.

Spies –  he seemed rather taken with James Bond –  and science fiction such as The Prisoner and Doctor Who  are also  star products of his Dream Factory production line.

While I’m sympathetic to Sandbrook’s  rejection of some of the overrated cultural icons it covers, he tries a little too hard and too self-consciously to  be a kind of middlebrow, plain-man iconoclast (he rates Elton John over David Bowie, to take one example).

 

His book  lacks Taylor’s  elegance and above all Taylor’s penetrating wit.  While Taylor’s study –  admittedly with a slightly narrower focus –  is  surefootedly deft,  deep,  and occasionally droll,  there is a sense of  clumsiness,  over striving for  effect,  in Sandbrook’s work.

Both are worth a read. But Taylor’s is the one I will read again.