Of sin and sacrifice. Roz Kaveney celebrates the life and work of critic Elizabeth Young, who died this year

Pandora's Handbag: adventures in the book world

Elizabeth Young<em> Serpent's Tail, £14.99</em>

Elizabeth Young and I argued about books for three decades. Liz whispered chunks of her reviews to me down the phone in a voice that grew frailer with the years, but never less forceful or intense. Instead of her, we now have Pandora's Handbag: adventures in the book world (Serpent's Tail), the book she spent her last months assembling, which is not just a stack of those reviews, but that stack interleaved with enough commentary and hindsight to be an intellectual autobiography.

The Liz I first met was spectacularly beautiful. She had dark, haunted, mischievous eyes, surrounded by elaborate calligraphies and peering out from a hennaed fringe. In one of the witty, elegiac personal pieces here, she regrets the loss of her beauty, but for once she was wrong. She lost youth and health, but never beauty. And yet it was important to Liz that loss of looks be part of the myth she lived through; she needed that sense of having paid something for wisdom and experience. She was fond of quoting Edith Wharton - "Take what you want and pay for it."

As many of these pieces make clear, the writing of literary criticism was for Liz both a trade and a vocation; being a critic and reviewer was a way of making moral commentary and improving discourse, as well as a way of creating part of her persona. As a child of Scottish puritanism, as well as a feminist and woman of the left, Liz was always too concerned with, well, righteousness,to be only the Goth dandy bad girl who was also a significant part of the person she was. When Private Eye's anonymous book people condemned her as a mere groupie of the depraved for defending acts of homosexual extremity in the fiction of Dennis Cooper, and A M Homes's novel about child abuse, The End of Alice, it was their accusation of lack of seriousness that made her write the indignant rebuttal reprinted, along with the Homes review, in Pandora's Handbag. Liz retained enough of the strict Free Presbyterianism of her parents to insist on finding lyrical moralism in some of the darkest writing of our time. Her praise of Homes and Cooper, and of Kathy Acker, derived from admiration of their eagerness to grapple with the realities of sexual power and oppression; it was for her, as for them, important to understand why fantasies of rape and murder are not, for some people, merely disgusting.

An essential seriousness was part of what kept her working in the wild years of her late twenties - when she combined avant-garde bookselling at the much-missed Compendium in Camden Town, north London, with being a punk groupie and heroin user - and during the last decade of her slow death from cirrhosis. She was that rare thing: a critic who knows life outside the rut and gossip of the literary world. She cared so much about books and the life of the mind - because she knew and cared about other things as well.

In many of the pieces here, she talks about self-development through books. It was American literature that kept her sane during the bullying, Leavisite miserabilism of the years just before the Swinging Sixties - "the opportunity enjoyed by adults, shielded by a thin veneer of apparent respectability for indulging in unlimited brutality, knowing there would be no comeback". It was from books, chosen by herself and hidden from figures of authority who would burn them, that she learnt to take those things she needed to assemble her adolescent and adult identities. This is not a new insight, but both in her reading of the pieces and the new material she wrote around them, she establishes a very clear take on it. As a critic, Liz was less concerned with second-guessing the judgements of a canon that would always be bourgeois and probably male, than with pointing out books that younger versions of herself might find useful.

Liz was as good at being a potentially doomed razzle-dazzle party girl as she was at being a critic. Her profile of Pamela des Barres, friend and sexual associate of Sixties rock stars, is all the better for its empathy. She had enough dangerous fun in her time that she had no side to her, no sense of being better than other people. And she was enough of a proto-punk, a proto-Goth, that even in the early Seventies, she was fascinated by the darker side of dandyism. She wrote well about contemporary horror, and was fascinated by the literature of true crime.

Part of what she liked about horror and true crime was that, at their best, they are forms that avoid sentimentality. Her critical sympathies were broad but unpredictable. Though very far from being a professional Scot, she was keen on the younger Scots novelists. Given his subject matter, Irvine Welsh might have been expected, but she was equally fond of Alan Warner ("no male writer has ever mastered the rituals of make-up in the way Warner has") and Alasdair Gray. She combined a fondness for gloomy writers such as Will Self with high praise of the technical mastery of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. She was a complete critic because she was a broad-minded one.

Yet some of the best pieces here are not reviews. They are essays about cats, or fragments of memoir, or authoritative accounts of the state of the short story. Liz simply wrote well - her handful of short stories was excellent and there are years' worth of journals sitting in a box somewhere. As Self points out in his excellent introduction, Liz had strong views about the things that were killing her - the medical profession's neglect of the hepatitis C epidemic from which her cirrhosis derived, for instance, and the folly of a war on drugs that was always mostly a war on drug users. Her articles on these topics from her final years are plain, clean and angry.