Puritan v populist: the battle of the books world

D J Taylor’s The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918 walks the tightrope between two sides of a culture war – but occasionally loses its footing.

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The two leading English book reviewers who emerged in the late 1980s resembled products of a funhouse mirror. James Wood, a sworn enemy of “the English tradition”, looked east to Russia and west to the United States. D J Taylor was happiest with the Victorian triple-decker and its slimmer social-realist successors – something with a good story, ideally revolving around provincial manners or hard-up littérateurs. Taylor lived for clarity, comedy and plot: Wood regretted the English novel’s “linguistic timidity”, “tight-fisted empiricism” and lack of a “tragic sense”. Wood bristled at the sight of topical reference points; Taylor bemoaned their scarcity.

Perhaps the starkest difference was one of method. Taylor was the Cambridge caricature of Oxford: gossipy, vulgarly historicist, London-besotted. Wood was the Oxford caricature of Cambridge: high-minded, fiddly, puritan. If turning out medium-length book reviews appeared hackishly at odds with Wood’s appetites and emphases, that was the price he had to pay for a full-time proximity to literature that didn’t involve the jargon-armoured, value-phobic 1980s seminar room. With Taylor, there was no sense of compromise. Filing regular copy made him a descendant of the literary type he admired just as much as the novelist – the “penny-a-liner” or “journeyman”, the jobbing man of letters.

So although it might seem odd for Chatto & Windus, the publisher of Taylor’s fiction, to describe The Prose Factory as the book he was “born to write”, it also makes a sort of sense. Throughout his career, Taylor has been building a genealogy of his own endeavours as a social novelist and quick-draw reviewer, and The Prose Factory, which encompasses the ages treated in A Vain Conceit (the 1980s), After the War: the Novel and England since 1945, Bright Young People (1918-40) and Orwell: the Life, is his magnum opus in this vein. Compendious
yet rollicking, it is an extraordinary feat of reading, skimming and synthesis. In seeking to recover the story of writing as a professional “activity” from the trenches to amazon.com, Taylor seems to have consulted every letter and journal entry and paperback round-up published during the period. When a chapter on the Bloomsbury group ends with the reflections of the later gossip and diarist David Plante, you wonder how Taylor settled on this spry and tickling coda from the thousands at his disposal.

Along the way, there are dozens of spry summaries as well as the occasional summary-execution. J C Squire, literary editor (and occasional editor) of the NS from 1913 to 1919, is “that little worm” (Lytton Strachey), “more repulsive than words can express, and malignant into the bargain” (Virginia Woolf), “the epitome of all that men mean by the word philistine” (F R Leavis). The life of John Lehmann, the force behind the Penguin New Writing, is said to demonstrate how disastrous it could be, “creatively” as well as “personally”, to combine homosexual satyromania with radical politics. But the cast list isn’t confined to worm-like writer-impresarios. Just as you resign yourself to a tour around another cash-strapped, conflict-fraught “little magazine”, Taylor ambushes you with several paragraphs on the novelist and dandy Ronald Firbank.

At times, it is hard to identify the book’s target audience. Describing the “fascination” of George Gissing’s novel New Grub Street (1891), Taylor stops to sound a conceding note, almost a health warning: “at any rate to those professionally enmired in the world of literature . . .” But those words could appear at the start of almost every paragraph of his own book. For all the talk about “the mass audience”, the book serves as neither a first port of call nor a one-stop shop. The reader is expected to know about the Yellow Book and the “quota quickie”, and to recognise without instruction the adjective “Snovian”. Tucked away, almost too familiar to mention at all, are Cyril Connolly’s “enemies of promise” (reviewing novels, the pram in the hall); the Chatterley trial; Rupert Murdoch’s defeat of the print unions; and Evelyn Waugh’s claim that Auden, Spender, MacNeice and Day-Lewis “ganged up” and stole the 1930s. Blink, and you’ll miss Colin Wilson, the author of the existentialist manifesto The Outsider (1956). It’s as if Taylor thinks that a man who merits no fewer than two French (or, as he might say, Gallic) tags – cause célèbre and enfant terrible – couldn’t possibly need introducing.

While the “famous” are glossed over, there is plenty of room for the marginal or mistreated, particularly those who lived long enough to witness their own decline in relevance or reputation. The novelist Hugh Walpole is introduced as a late Victorian, “condemned to operate in the endlessly contested territory of the 1920s and 1930s . . . forced to live out his days, half ­envious and half bewildered, in the world of imagism, Bloomsbury and vers libre”. John Lehmann, the poet, publisher and founder of both the New Writing and the London Magazine, ended up “an ageing Homintern [1930s-style homosexual communist intellectual] ghost grimly stalking the corridors of the 1960s”. The 1970s and 1980s, bearers of feminism, postmodernism, post-colonialism and the Granta list of bright young novelists (Amis, McEwan et al), were “littered with the bones of senior literary men and women”, the one-time shining star Angus Wilson being “perhaps the most poignant casualty”.

Occasionally the literary life throws up an example of gratitude, resilience, and good luck. At a funeral in 1973 Philip Larkin approaches the critic Cyril Connolly, who would be dead within a year, and says, “Sir, you formed me.” George Saintsbury is shown at the age of 80, still twitching “in anticipation as he bent over the latest parcel of books sent in for review”. And it’s hard not to cheer when the long-suffering, near-suicidal Alec Waugh (brother of Evelyn), who said that “resilience” was the mark of a born man of letters, bets everything on a 900-page novel and wins. “By January 1956,” Taylor writes, “the month of publi­cation, Island in the Sun . . . had racked up pre-publication earnings of nearly $500,000 – enough, as Waugh gratefully acknowledged, to set him up for life.”

It is odd that Taylor doesn’t pay more attention to the quirks of fortune enjoyed by dead writers in the period he covers. The revival of Donne in the 1910s, Henry James in the 1920s and Trollope in the 1940s, and the cult that grew around D H Lawrence, were in their own way as important to literary culture as the publication of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954). Taylor refers on three separate occasions to “pioneering” criticism of Dickens – by G K Chesterton, Humphry House and John Carey. But he gives no sense of what it said, how it reflected the taste of the time it was written (1906, 1941, 1973) and how it enabled or consolidated Dickens’s introduction into the canon.

In a letter to Virginia Woolf about the Victorians, Lytton Strachey wrote: “They seem to me to be a set of mouthing bungling hypocrites; but perhaps really there is a baroque charm about them which will be discovered by our great-great-grandchildren as we have discovered the charm of Donne, who seemed intolerable to the 18th century.” Cultural dynamics of this kind are absent from Taylor’s account. The Bloomsbury revival of the 1960s is confined to the chapter on Bloomsbury – a delightful piece of trivia, and not a story about reception, or transmission, or the canon.

It would have been easier for Taylor to consider this subject if he had engaged more directly with T S Eliot, whose overhaul of the canon – Metaphysicals in, Romantics and Milton out – was one of the decisive literary developments of the 20th century. But Taylor is suspicious of Eliot as a poet, polemicist and taste-maker, to the extent of identifying snobbery where none exists. One of the book’s opening moves is to define Eliot’s idea of the “objective correlative” as “the suggestion that it could be possible, with the right training, for every serious reader to acquire the powers of judgement necessary for them to formulate the correct opinions about books”.

Well, it is true that Eliot talked about the common pursuit of “true judgement” – though he also said that the only method was not to be well trained or privately educated but “very intelligent”. And in any case, the “objective correlative” had nothing to do with any of this. It was a literary-critical term used to describe a narrative scenario that fully justified the emotion it was shown to provoke. But Taylor’s own fantastical definition (where did it come from?) is invoked as virtually the catalyst for the whole book, and in particular its defence of “the common reader”:

The “objective correlative” always seemed to me an immensely dreary way of instilling uniformity, for it assumed that literature, in the end, was broadly susceptible to the laws of cause and effect, when one of the principal joys of the art of reading is that it is unregulated, that you can think what you like about the work presented for your inspection.

It isn’t the only time that one of Taylor’s allergies blurs his vision. He writes: “If [I A] Richards and [William] Empson never managed to establish anything resembling a school of criticism, or at any rate a Cambridge school of criticism . . .” But a Cambridge school is exactly what they did establish, and it would be easy to imagine a history of literary life in England since 1918 populated exclusively by its forebears, founders, pupils and truants.

It is almost as if Taylor has chosen to ­rewrite history in order to suit his agenda. Without the dominance of Cambridge English, Taylor can tell a story about the triumph of the common reader and the humble reviewer over the elitist conspiracy known as “university English”. His book’s final approving reference to developments in academic literary criticism occurs on page 53, when Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction, published in 1921, is praised for “bringing questions of style, narrative structure and technique a great deal closer to the averagely intelligent reader”. Meanwhile, the sole mention of The Great Tradition (1948) by F R Leavis expresses the worry that “the pursuit of ‘standards’ would ultimately lead to a comparatively small group of people laying down the law”.

In tiptoeing along the border between the specialist and the popular, Taylor occasionally loses his footing. Because David Lodge is a cheery reviewer and a popular comic novelist, Taylor believes his book The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy and the Typology of Modern Literature (1977) can be cited safely as an example of the “media don”. Yet The Modes of Modern Writing is precisely an example of Lodge the non-media don, and one suspects that if Taylor so much as glanced at its table of contents (“Jakobson’s Theory”, “Two Types of Aphasia”) he would be left feeling queasy for days.

There is a “career academic” for whom Taylor shows convincing approval. That is the sabre-wielding egalitarian John Carey, author of the essay “Down With Dons” and the 1992 anti-modernist survey The Intellectuals and the Masses, who once accused Jacques Derrida of attempting to intimidate “the reader” (as if Carey’s “reader” would go anywhere near De la grammatologie). It’s crucial to Carey’s appeal that, despite being Merton Professor at Oxford, he contributed to the Listener and the Sunday Times as “a journalist”, like Desmond MacCarthy or Martin Amis, and stalked “his quarry by way of the breezy generalisation and the pithy one-liner”.

Taylor has less time for dons who wrote for newspapers without ever being jour­nalistic, among them Christopher Ricks, John Bayley, Michael Wood, Gabriel Josipovici and Frank Kermode, who, given his journey from humble background to Regius professorship and his role in founding the London Review of Books, might have been the book’s hero, but is instead the harshest casualty of its biases. And when Taylor reaches the inheritor of the rigorous, canon-cleaving, “Olympian” tradition – James Wood – he does his best to write him out of the story, describing him as “avid to bring to newspaper books pages some of the techniques of the lecture room”. The section on Wood, a grudging couple of pages, adapts and extends a case that Taylor set down in a review of How Fiction Works, Wood’s 2008 primer about how it “brings off its effects”, in which he complained about fusty phrases such as “marvellous alchemical translation”.

Taylor wants to argue and demonstrate that you can say valuable things about literature without being neoclassical, lecturing, and so on. But that puts great pressure on common sense and the common touch, and, at a crucial moment, in the closing lines of his introduction, a crack appears. Defining the experience that underpins and justifies all the poverty and disappointment recounted in his book, Taylor proceeds to invoke “the well-nigh alchemical transformation which lies at the heart of reading – the way in which literature, of whatever kind, works its effect”. 

The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918 by D J Taylor is published by Chatto & Windus (501pp, £25)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 07 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue

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