Here, there is no hand-wringing about the death of the book

A Little History of Literature and How to Read a Novelist.

A Little History of Literature
John Sutherland
Yale, 288pp, £14.99

How to Read a Novelist
John Freeman
Corsair, 384pp, £8.99

A Little History of Literature, which begins with Beowulf and ends with bestsellers, is primarily a guide for teenagers, and John Sutherland brings to the vast and unruly subject some order, clarity and commonsense. Like Dr Johnson, he enjoys the chance to “concur with the common reader”, and the common reader – addressed as though he or she were a bright-eyed Candide rather than a dead-eyed nihilist – will doubtless concur with Sutherland’s views on the joys of genre fiction, the value of what Orwell called “good-bad books”, the analogy between Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads and the lyrical ballads of Bob Dylan, and the virtue of good film adaptations, such as the 1992 version of The Last of the Mohicans, which “complicates our response to the original novel”.

There is no hand-wringing about the death of the book; Sutherland remains optimistic –“and with good reason” – about the place of ebooks and the future of reading. Nor does he bewail the popularity of the fan-fiction websites that gave us Fifty Shades of Grey, and where Harry Potter and Jane Austen obsessives share their own spin-off tales. These forums for the common writer revive a form of storytelling that, like the Odyssey, “is not commissioned, nor is it paid for, nor is it ‘reviewed’, nor is it bought. It is not, as the term is usually applied, ‘published’.”

“Fanfic” is part of an evolving online republic in which writing is not a commodity but a “conversation”, and Sutherland himself adopts an easy conversational gait as he leads the nation’s youngsters, Pied Piper-like, away from their iPhones and into a written world from which he hopes they will never return. There are some good jokes along the way: Oepidus kills Laius at the crossroads in a fit of “road-rage”, the muse is a “mean employer” who provides “inspiration but no cash”, and religion in the age of Shakespeare was “literally a burning topic”.

There are two million volumes of so-called literature in the vaults of the British Library and Sutherland’s problem is the same as the one he ascribes to Laurence Sterne with Tristram Shandy: how to pack everything necessary for the journey that the book is about to take, when you have ten times more clothes than suitcases. Some essentials have to be left behind. First in go myth, epic and tragedy; comedy is excluded but then Sutherland finds humour in everything. Instead of sensation novels, such as Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, there are enjoyable discussions of “proto novels” – like Cervantes’s Don Quixote – where we “feel a novel trying to get out”, and of “novels about novels” – such as Tristram Shandy –which make it hard for the reader to get in.

Wisely perhaps, Sutherland does not allow sex on this particular trip, which might explain the absence of D H Lawrence. Nor does he bring along Freud’s “discovery” of the unconscious; but then, as Freud himself conceded, the writers had got there first.

Singled out for special attention are Johnson, Jane Austen, Dickens and Hardy rather than Trollope, George Eliot, Henry James or James Joyce. Space is given to Romanticism (but not the Gothic), modernism (but not postmodernism), to literature of the absurd, confessional and war poetry, as well as magical realism. Digressions into copyright law, the history of the book, prize culture and colonialism (Sutherland suggests that only “great” nations produce “great” literature) give the book an extra dimension.

Critically speaking, Sutherland is old-fashioned but schools of criticism are not mentioned here; apart from Dr Johnson, the nation’s schoolmaster, the most significant critic referred to is “our English teacher in the classroom”. Despite his respect for the words-on-the-page approach, Sutherland goes for potted biographies and plot summaries rather than close readings. “Great literature never makes things simpler” he reminds us, and if I have a gripe with his laudably democratic approach it is that he makes reading seem too simple.

He quotes Sartre’s contention that novels “are machines that secrete spurious meaning into the world”, and it would be good to see more of these meanings unlocked and to watch Sutherland demonstrate the difference between a meaning and a spurious meaning, or a line of good poetry and a line of “crud”. At the same time as he warns us that literature “gives no easy answers to difficult questions”, he makes reading seem as easy as a soak in the bath.

That reading can be a high-risk activity becomes apparent in How to Read a Novelist, conversations between the former Granta editor John Freeman and 55 (mostly American) writers, from Toni Morrison to Jonathan Franzen. For Freeman, reading is “a challenge but there is pleasure in the challenge”, while “the best writing is always difficult to do”. In his introduction, “U and Me: the Hard Lessons of Idolising John Updike”, he describes how his own reading lesson began with Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Before long, Updike had become less a pleasure than a mania. Freeman “traced” his own life over Updike’s, leaving New York, as Updike had done, to live with his girlfriend in a clapboard house in New England, where he found his “relationship immolation” repeating those of Updike’s characters. He worried that the shelves loaded with Updike editions might collapse and smother him in his sleep; he then sold the collection to pay for a wedding ring. The marriage failed and on the day his divorce was finalised Freeman found himself interviewing the great man himself and confiding in him about the break-up.

Why not? Updike had, after all, been a part of the relationship. Freeman’s assumption of intimacy apparently made Updike unhappy: “John”, his publicist explained, was “old school”. There is, Freeman learned, a wrong way to read: literature does not provide “vicariously learned solutions” to our own personal problems.

Sound familiar, common reader? Nicholson Baker covered similar ground in “U & I”, his own account of the neurosis induced by Updike idolatry. Freeman doesn’t mention Baker’s essay but the homage is there in the title of his chapter. Is this a version of fanfic – or have I misread it?

Frances Wilson’s books include “The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth” (Faber, £10.99)

"Great literature never makes things simpler". Image: Getty Images.

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

Donmar Warehouse
Show Hide image

Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution