The finest critic of her generation

Appreciation - Jason Cowleyon the life and work of Elizabeth Young, a daring and original reader

The first person I called when I became literary editor of the New Statesman was Elizabeth Young. We had never met, but I had long been an admirer of her fierce, independent intelligence, of her originality and daring as a literary critic, of the depth of her reading and, above all, of her fearlessness. As a reader, Young was drawn to deviance, extremity and experimentation, to what she called the "seductively gothic and ghoulish"; the avant-garde writers she introduced to British readers - such as Dennis Cooper and J T LeRoy - were literary outlaws, voices from the margins, operators on the outer edges of artistic and human acceptability.

In the early 1990s, Young had been a frequent contributor to the books pages of the Guardian at a time when, edited by Richard Gott, those pages had a compelling difference. She was one of a small squad of fresh reviewers - others included Jenny Turner, James Wood, Philip Hensher and Julian Evans - who were not in thrall to established reputations and, because they were smart and well-read, wrote about books and the writing life with enormous power and iconoclasm.

Today, in our fallen, degraded times, an un-pleasant careerism overshadows so much of what passes for our literary culture, and newspapers have become not much more than an adjunct of the entertainment industry, a vulgar melange of celebrity chefs, gossip, political intrigue and ahistorical comment. In a less meretricious age, Elizabeth Young would have been a star; but, in many ways, she was too good, too uncompromising in her tastes, too driven by intense feeling and emotion (though in person she was mild, reticent, modest).

When I contacted her, she was very low: illness and a cer- tain weariness with the new generation of literary editors informed her conversation. I mentioned her work for the Guardian. "Those were happy times," she sighed. But, yes, she would write for the New Statesman, having enjoyed contributing to the magazine in the past. In return, I offered her space and a free pick of books. Her choices were characteristically unpredictable, and the work she produced was always subtle, unusual, always worth reading and rereading - long reviews of biographies of Kipling, Celine and the serial killer Fred West; a study of hard-core pornography and of Vivienne Westwood; a celebration of Hubert Selby, as part of our occasional series on books of great personal and political moment. Towards the end, as she battled with Hepatitis C and awaited a liver transplant, she was still writing and working on the proofs of her forthcoming book, Pandora's Handbag, a selection of her essays and journalism, which will be published in the summer by Serpent's Tail. The last e-mail she sent me, in January, was, despite her extreme fatigue, full of optimism; she desperately wanted to live.

"Liz was very much opposed to the idea that the good critic was the critic who showed his or her acumen by trashing other writers," says Peter Ayrton, her publisher at Serpent's Tail. "She preferred to write about writers whose work she admired, and it is no accident that these tended to be outsiders - people whose position in the culture was marginal. An intellectual in a country that is very wary of intellectuals, Liz Young enjoyed the work of writers who are not afraid to make demands on their readers. She cultivated and empathised with the literary avant-garde at a time when the latter is in danger of being banished to the academy."

Elizabeth Young was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in June 1950. Her father was a director at Rowntree and her childhood was largely itinerant, as the family moved from Lagos to Scotland to London and then to York. She studied briefly at Leeds University, dropping out after one year, and then at York, where she was happier. After teaching for a period at Lancaster Art College, she moved to London in the mid-1970s, working at the radical Compendium bookshop in Camden Town. She was prominent on the emerging punk scene and was, for a time, a girlfriend of Mick Jones of the Clash (she appeared in the seminal punk movie Rude Boy).

In 1979, she met Peter Mannheim (they married in 1980 and remained happily together until her death) and at the same time she began publishing her first literary journalism, in Time Out, City Limits and later in the New Statesman. From there, she progressed to contributing regularly to the broadsheets, particularly the Guardian.

Looking back, at the last reviews she wrote for this magazine, one is impressed by the immediacy and honesty of her style. There is nothing ironic or knowing about her work. She is one of those rare critics whose voice is entirely her own, who has her own inimitably stylised signature, who is always capable of both aesthetic and moral surprise. She could be funny, too. Here she is, with characteristic acuity and intelligence, reviewing Gordon Burns's Happy Like Murderers, a study of the diabolical Fred and Rose West: "This book, with its impressionism and imagery and muted streams of consciousness, is, like its Damien Hirst cover, essentially style-driven. The title, once seemingly slick and brash, seems perfect now. The Wests were happy like murderers; and Burns goes no deeper than that. Fred West went much, much deeper into the soil and the dark and the womb and the extremes of physical life. Burn should have done the same, in the intellectual and artistic sense . . ."

In her own way, Elizabeth Young ventured into the darkness and extremes of the imaginative life. She understood how we are all prey to unconscious forces, how dangerous and yet how intoxicating what she called the "demoniac aspects of creativity" can be. There was no one quite like her. She was, without doubt, the most original critic of her generation. Her family and close friends must be inconsolable at her loss. But, at least, we shall have Pandora's Handbag. Don't miss it.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.