Being all right, and being wrong

Barbara Everett

  • Miscellaneous Verdicts: Writings on Writers 1946-1989 by Anthony Powell
    Heinemann, 501 pp, £20.00, May 1990, ISBN 0 434 59928 X
  • Haydn and the Valve Trumpet by Craig Raine
    Faber, 498 pp, £20.00, June 1990, ISBN 0 571 15084 5

Men of different generations and presumably social worlds, Anthony Powell and Craig Raine aren’t much alike as writers. But the novelist’s Miscellaneous Verdicts and the poet’s Haydn and the Valve Trumpet are both very good, solid selections of occasional writing. The five hundred pages to which they both run are mainly literary journalism, with some illuminating essays on the social-historical from Powell, and vivid side-glances at painters and painting from Raine. With all their differences, the two writers have one thing in common. Both dislike most kinds of academic literary criticism. And this antipathy can’t be disentangled from the effective virtues of their work.

It seems safe to assume that academics have as much right to discourse on books as have poets and novelists to write them. Nor do minds as able as Powell’s and Raine’s need telling that in modern society the arts depend on a current of ideas which it is the universities’ task – at least in theory – to provide and protect. The trouble comes with the theory.

Nobody could pretend that universities are at present, or were ever, especially alive with applied intelligence. In addition, we are in a difficult phase of academic literary criticism, which has the air of getting cleverer and cleverer while simultaneously moving close to pointlessness. The new quasi-theoretical modes as often as not find a use for Shakespeare or Jane Austen or T.S. Eliot by exposing them, morally or politically or otherwise, as no good. This is annoying for writers and farcical for readers.

Though sometimes plainly motivated, this effect is basically incidental. Academic life is now governed by the thesis; and a thesis is required to show an authoritative mastery of its literary subject easily converting to a stance of superiority on the part of the researcher. Moreover, such research techniques have managed almost universally to demand of all literary criticism that it have what is referred to as ‘system’. This seems reasonable. Unfortunately, what passes for system academically is often no more than mechanism, producing results painfully shallow in comparison with the real systems of high-powered human intelligence.

Defending literature now can place the liberal academic in positions which it’s not altogether ludicrous to relate to that of the trapped liberal of the Thirties, confronted by competing totalitarianisms. And those positions are inherited by university-trained writers like Powell and Raine. Both enunciate principles as congenial as they now sound dated: Powell’s civilised ‘plea for mutual tolerance among authors writing on the same subject’, Raine’s brave ‘nothing is more difficult than being open-minded.’ Any liberal reader reads and admires and sympathises with their impassioned defence of the writer as against the academic. And of course poems and novels are better and more vital than critical essays. But at the moments when both try to find a way of saying why this is so, they get curiously trapped between the philistine and the Romantic-aesthetic. Thinking about the arts is at once more important than they sometimes make it sound, and harder.

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