SIR: As a common reader with the usual limited book-purchasing power, I read with anticipation D.J. Enright’s review of John McGahern’s latest novel, The Pornographer, in your last issue (LRB, 8 November). McGahern’s previous work, The Leavetaking, had impressed me as second only to Sons and Lovers in its ability to transmit childhood memory. I am indebted to Mr Enright for the knowledge that women in real life get pregnant from intercourse, especially in Ireland; that the distinction between the old porn and the new is that of ‘soft mounds’ versus ‘polar bears’ (sic); that what the Irish don’t have is the biggest thing they have; and finally, but by no means least valuably, that happiness, current permissiveness notwithstanding, is as scarce as ever. I was further gratified to learn that the writing of pornography may either shed light on the necessity of the IRA or, at worst, be a partial solution to (life’s?) problems. I was perplexed at Mr Enright’s dismissal of the book’s prose as ‘poetic’ and at his inexplicable aversion to melancholy characters, especially those without names. But no matter. What I missed, however, was any attempt at divining the author’s intentions, or providing a yardstick for his achievement which the reader might share. At the end, I was uncertain whether my £4.95 would be better spent on this novel or a performance of No Sex, Please—We’re British.
SIR: D.J. Enright has a lot of good fun with the thought that John McGahern’s new novel exhibits a hero who is ‘relentlessly miserable’, though the Ireland he lives in affords plenty to eat and drink. But people are often miserable, and there’s a literature to show, together with much in the way of other evidence, that Irish people, perhaps, are especially miserable. Their misery may even be a factor that helps to account for what they have been doing to each other, North and South, in the last few years. Then again, Mr Enright’s good fun has a touch of that English indifference which may be another factor of the same kind.
Mr Enright writes in the course of his review:
When the woman tells him in her innocent way, ‘I love you. I often cried out for you … I want to eat and drink you,’ he shudders away in distaste. ‘I thought nobody could tell anybody that, and I listened to the loud street.’
A knowledge of McGahern’s previous fictions suggests that the words which describe the man’s miserable response might read, in their full context, rather strongly. These fictions have something to communicate about what certain people cannot say, and cannot do, and about more than one variety of hunger. This is not to deny that Mr Enright could well have a point when he adds that the man’s ‘fastidiousness does not deter him from some fancy prose in his own thoughts: “I willed all sense down to living in her wetness like in a wound.”’
SIR: ‘Art,’ Christopher Ricks tells us in your Irish issue, ‘practises what it preaches’ – in Seamus Heaney’s case, apparently a creed of unexclamatory, ‘sturdy’ trust (LRB, 8 November). Should criticism not aspire to do the same: to have, for example, some faith in the praising verbs and nouns that it delivers? Professor Ricks is enjoyably persuasive, or persuasively enjoyable, about the subject-matter of Heaney’s new volume of poetry, but I wonder whether his argument is not undermined, rather than advanced, by his faith in the analytic adverb. ‘As confidently trusting in its own arc …’: there would surely be little to exalt in a faltering trust fluttering home to the nest? The poems were ‘truly enlightened’: what, quite, is the alternative to ‘truly’ here? Another sense is ‘tacitly summoned in order to be gently found preposterous’: it would be taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut – not an activity we are encouraged to believe Seamus Heaney is liable to indulge in – to beleaguer a mute meaning with a violent rebuttal?
And certainly you ‘have to love your wife most trustingly’ (perhaps even somewhat unusually) before ‘you would trust yourself to a comparison of her to a skunk’, but wouldn’t such trust entail ‘trust in the reciprocity’, rather than require it as an additional prerequisite before writing one’s poem?
I trust Professor Ricks’s judgment; I trust he is right about Seamus Heaney’s trust. But I feel he would make his case better if he were more trustingly bare in his prose.
SIR: I agree with much of Michael Neve’s letter in your last issue (Letters, 8 November). He gives a carefully weighed statement of opposition to Malthusian thought. What I had attempted to point out in my review was how much more flexible Malthus was on economic theory than in his dogmatic and gloomy views of population. His principle of population is, and was, unpleasant, though a good deal, if not all, of its malignant application was from other and later hands. It was also, for Britain and most of Western Europe, wrong, as the 19th century was to show, but it has not yet been shown wrong in world terms. So long as there is potential validity in a theory, I do not think any of us can reject it, or its author, as unpleasant company, however strong our distaste.
Pencaitland, East Lothian
The London Review of Books
SIR: In your last issue the managing director of Hutchinson is quoted as saying that commercial blockbusters are needed in order to nurture ‘the talents of fresh generations of British authors’. The literary editor of the Guardian writes in the same issue that, to the contrary, such commercial pressures make ‘the best that is written and published … more and more marginal’. As a writer, I am sceptical of both analyses. My work is nurtured (in traditional fashion) by a small publisher and others who like it. Large publishers, here and in New York, go to tortuously explicit lengths to avoid nurturing it. For instance, phrases like ‘such a good writer’ begin to sound like a new language of insult coined by the once-magical names of publishing, now in my ears a string of left-over jokes. The reception of work by literary editors and reviewers makes no more sense to me. Where the theme matches journalistic and topical preoccupations of the media, my work has received ample attention, possibly more than it deserves. Where it carries no extraneous weight, my work has received, from renowned literary editors, private appreciation but no public space. The pressures that bring this about are manifestly those freely accepted by literary editors themselves, and nothing to do with blockbusting publishers.
Like every writer, I have economic difficulties, and private rages about the amount of attention I get. To project these into the public sphere would simply erect a pseudo-relationship with the system of big publishers and big media-editors – that is to say, a relationship of resentment, frustration and hostility. I prefer to believe that the great publishing houses are no longer publishers – they are something else. And the literary editors and reviewers are enclosed in a narcissistic network of media preoccupations. To save my skin as a writer I must avoid these like the plague.
Long experience in the marketing of products and the techniques of media communication tells me that in these fields communication is a ‘hard’ and expression a ‘soft’ value. A product can be effectively communicated in advertising with very little ‘expressive’ content because the product itself exists, hard and solid, as its own ultimate expression. But in the literary world expression is itself the product and is therefore the ‘hard’ value. Yet the modern marketing philosophy of publishing and the new media attitudes set up communication as the hard, central value of the literary world. The pressure on the writer is to become a soft core, moulded to the communication demands of publishers and agents, with nothing of his own to express. Inevitably, if you have no product, no expression to communicate, you communicate emptiness.
As a writer, I am concerned with the hard value of writing, the work of expression. I am lucky enough to know a few publishing/editing people who extend this into communication. That relationship, as I see it, forms the hard core of the literary world. All the rest is just a big soft jelly.
SIR: I hope that the London Review will adopt one practice which the TLS never did, that of providing the date of publication and the International Standard Book Number of each book reviewed. These are now – were they ever not? – crucial details in ordering and processing library books. Not to have them to hand can slow down the rate at which library staff and booksellers put these matters in hand.
Deputy Librarian, Edinburgh University Library