The Slightest Sardine

James Wood

  • The Oxford English Literary History. Vol. XII: 1960-2000: The Last of England? by Randall Stevenson
    Oxford, 624 pp, £30.00, February 2004, ISBN 0 19 818423 9

Writers and literary academics have never been closer, and never further apart. Since the New Criticism of the 1950s, there have been two developments that should be contradictory but whose agreement in fact makes gloomy sense. On the one hand, for the first time in history, many poets and novelists are graduates of English studies, many of them put through the theory machine for good measure. Writers and academics teach together, attend conferences together, and sometimes almost speak the same language (Rushdie’s essays and academic post-colonialist discourse; DeLillo’s fiction and academic postmodern critique). But during the same period, literary criticism as a discourse available for, and even attractive to, the common reader has all but disappeared. Literature as criticism – DeLillo’s knowing essayism, Rushdie’s parables about hybridity, Franzen’s postmodern riffs – has burgeoned, while criticism as literature, what R.P. Blackmur called ‘the formal discourse of an amateur’, has faded.

This ought not to be possible. If all those clever writers studied other writers at university, they should, in addition to producing fiction and poetry, be writing capacious essays for the mythical common reader. We should be awash in V.S. Pritchetts and Edmund Wilsons. There are many reasons why this is not so. The audience for such essays is probably smaller than it was, and certainly less cohesive. The growth of the canon, and changing attitudes about elite culture, make the top-down instruction provided with such grumpy relish by Wilson problematic. But the chief reason is that the academy won: it was not writers who changed literary criticism, but academic criticism that changed literary criticism. It made it, precisely, more academic. Theory, metalled with its own unforgiving dialects, certainly proved a difficult road for many untutored readers. But theory is not the culprit, rather the symptom of a steady academicising. That theory is not per se the problem we can deduce from the many writers who have studied it, absorbed its findings, and emerged undamaged (i.e. emerged writers and not academics).

This absence of a general, non-academic literary criticism is the speaking void which tells us that writers, though apparently closer than ever to academics, are actually miles from them. The void is the public space that might have been. Many contemporary writers are familiar with the procedures of post-structuralism and deconstruction. They can talk about decentred texts and self-reflexive narration; they acknowledge that a text has an unconscious, and that it can be read against the grain of its author’s apparent intentions. They see that Eminem’s lyrics might be a ‘text’ in the way that Middlemarch is a text. They are often keener than many scholars to open up the canon. But they diverge from most academic critics, theoretical or otherwise, in two massive areas: intention and value.

Most writers I know treat an author’s intentions – or their understanding of them – with severe respect. Better than anyone else, they know that a work of art means more than its creator intended it to mean, that artworks live what Montale called ‘the second life of art’ with their readers. But their criticism, spoken or written, tends to hug authorial intention rather closely; and writers, in my experience, are often suspicious of the way academic criticism confounds or even nullifies authorial intention in pursuit of the symptomatic. In his new book, After Theory, Terry Eagleton describes two camps, the belletristic and the theoretical. Why is it, he asks, that the former is credited with seeing what is ‘really in the text’? ‘To see The Waste Land as brooding upon the spiritual vacancy of Man without God is to read what is there on the page, whereas to view it as a symptom of an exhausted bourgeois civilisation in an era of imperialist warfare is to impose your own crankish theory on the poem.’ It’s a caricature – theoretical Eagleton turns out to be fonder of crude binarisms than the crustiest old clubman – but a writer would be very wary of a criticism that only wanted to read The Waste Land symptomatically. Not to attend to a plausible reconstruction of the author’s aesthetic intentions is not to attend to the made-ness, the constructedness, of the artwork; and writers, sensibly enough, have a great deal invested in such matters.

Value follows intention. There is no greater mark of the gap that separates writers and English departments than the question of value. The very thing that most matters to writers, the first question they ask of a work – is it any good? – is often largely irrelevant to university teachers. Writers are intensely interested in what might be called aesthetic success: they have to be, because in order to create something successful one must learn about other people’s successful creations. To the academy, much of this value-chat looks like, and can indeed be, mere impressionism. Again, theory is not the only culprit. A good deal of postmodern thought is suspicious of the artwork’s claim to coherence, and so is indifferent or hostile to the discussion of its formal success. But conventional, non-theoretical criticism often acts as if questions of value are irrelevant, or canonically settled. To spend one’s time explaining how a text works is not necessarily ever to talk about how well it works, though it might seem that the latter is implicit in the former. Who bothers, while teaching The Portrait of a Lady for the nth time, to explain to a class that it is a beautiful book? But it would be a pardonable exaggeration to say that, for most writers, greedy to learn and emulate, this is the only important question.

Randall Stevenson’s volume in the Oxford English Literary History, which provides an account of 1960 to 2000, prompts these thoughts, because his book has no interest in aesthetic intention and no interest in aesthetic success. It is a purely academic account of hundreds of literary forms created almost entirely by non-academics. In more than six hundred pages, it is hard to detect the author, who teaches at Edinburgh University, making a single evaluative judgment. In a moment of daring, he calls A House for Mr Biswas ‘much-admired’, but since he also reserves that epithet for ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, which he appears not to like, one is left in the dark. This evaluative reticence is not timidity, however. He does have likes and dislikes, and they emerge steadily. He likes poetry and fiction that draw attention to their own procedures: ‘self-reflexive, postmodern’ forms are what excite him, and the authors of these seem politically ‘progressive’ to him. This is why he likes J.H. Prynne’s verse, but not Larkin’s, and why he writes enthusiastically about Rushdie but treats A Dance to the Music of Time as if it were just a handbook of toff sociology.

He has opinions about artworks; but they are never aesthetic ones. He rarely treats poems and novels as if they have any aesthetic autonomy, as if they might be charged formal spaces within which a high degree of intentionality and detail superbly exist. Instead, he is an epigraphist, content to read works for their historical content. Insofar as form and language detain him, they detain him as questions of ideology. It may be for this reason that he seems to prefer drama to poetry and fiction, and that he praises ‘the particularly rapid progress of English drama’ in this period. (Drama, being more openly political than either fiction or poetry, is more progressive.) Just as he stints discussion of aesthetics, so he repeatedly writes as if authorial intention were merely instrumental, a matter of having one’s say about certain issues. On fictional themes, he writes: ‘Lost fathers and difficulties with parents continued to reflect changing lifestyles and class affiliations throughout the period . . . Family conflict was also used by these authors, and others in the period, to highlight differences between provincial life and the metropolis.’

A separate chapter on fiction by women is egregious in this regard. Developments in feminism are simply read off relevant works. Penelope Fitzgerald’s work, because it doesn’t fit, is awarded just four lines in the entire book: ‘These general trends in the later 1970s, 1980s and 1990s can be illustrated by examples taken from each decade. Penelope Fitzgerald’s fiction often focused on strong heroines, exemplifying various forms of independence – in trade, in The Bookshop (1978), for example, or in raising a family on a leaky houseboat, in Offshore (1979).’ In this realm, in which writers ‘use’ material to ‘highlight’ themes, in which social trends are illustrated by fictional examples, it isn’t surprising that aesthetic success is collapsed into sociology. A Dance to the Music of Time, for instance, is read alongside C.P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers series, as if the two writers were identically valued. (Is Snow’s series even in print?) Both cycles of novels ‘illustrate in this way concerns which continued to develop throughout the 1950s’. Each writer ‘explored the huge transformations in English society and class assumptions occurring at the time . . . Especially as they accelerated after the war, these disintegral processes provided the principal interest of A Dance to the Music of Time.’ Sentences are thrown out which, because they lack aesthetic context, must seem gnomic to any but the unnaturally well-informed. To write that ‘like Murdoch in The Black Prince, Golding also moved into metafictional mode in The Paper Men (1984)’ with that purposive, energetic-sounding verb ‘moved into’, is meaningless unless it is explained that William Golding’s The Paper Men was a late, and lame, novel of remarkable thinness by an old famous author about being a famous author. It was metafictional only in the way that reality TV is metatelevisual.

Stevenson never reflects on a writer’s aesthetic intentions, but this may be a blessing in disguise, for in those rare moments when he considers intention at all, he is crudely materialist. An interesting discussion about the way short stories, in this period, ceded ground to novels, and novels in turn became more like short stories, yields to a mystifying generalisation about novels becoming shorter: ‘Declining economic confidence among publishers, and dwindling stamina or leisure time among readers, encouraged some novelists almost to usurp the short story’s usual dimensions. When Ian McEwan moved on from short-story writing, it was to produce a first "novel", The Cement Garden (1978), not much in excess of one hundred pages.’ Ah, so that is why McEwan’s novels are so short. What layers of evasion are hidden in that careful verb ‘encouraged’. Generally McEwan’s motives are darkly scanned in this book; a passage about the use of thriller plots talks about the blending of genres in our time – Enduring Love is singled out – and then reaches for the profit motive: ‘they simply reflected the breakneck economics ruling the "shopping mall” or "aesthetic supermarket” of late 20th-century publishing and bookselling. Pressures of retailing encouraged "re-taleing", or reorienting of the novel’s priorities: of all the conventions authors might choose to shape their literary vision, those of the thriller genres were obviously the most likely to sell books.’ This passage has all that is wrong with Stevenson’s approach. He goes first to economics, and then to literature, not the other way round. Again, that verb ‘encouraged’ does the shifty work of suggesting economic or ideological cause and effect without quite shading it in. Authors apparently ‘choose’ conventions like shirts. Above all, there is that little deconstructive game, in which ‘retailing’ is doodled into ‘re-taleing’. To play such a game is to be flippantly academic about writers’ intentions, for if the slippage between the two words is logically examined, the idea must be somehow that the first word’s punning proximity to the second suggested to writers an analogical slippage between selling and rewriting. In fact, it is only an academic pun that has ‘encouraged’ retailing to turn into re-taleing; it has nothing to do with any proven reality. It’s just silliness among the signifiers.

Stevenson’s book is, it should be said in fairness, a massive gathering of painful erudition. He is like Denys the Alexandrian, who in Flaubert’s account received orders from heaven to read every book in the world. His head must be dizzy with the minor works of Julian Mitchell and Francis King and Brian Patten and Maureen Duffy. His sleep must have been poisoned for years by worries about properly dating Piers Paul Read’s A Married Man. It is, in fact, a disaster to fill a book like this with storms of names and endless lists; narrative gets shouted down by the encyclopedic. But there are many valuable discussions: Stevenson shows that much postwar fiction was shadowed by the war, and particularly by the Holocaust. Always more interesting on society than on art, he intelligently discusses the rise of a large, literate reading public (the first in history, Raymond Williams thought). In a big book I could find only two tiny slips: the Australian novelist Christina Stead is called ‘New Zealand-based’ (a confusion with the critic and novelist C.K. Stead), and the Nicolson of Weidenfeld and Nicolson receives a spurious ‘h’.

The book attempts to fuse narrative and encyclopedia. Stevenson’s story is that the 1960s were a time of political innovation and experiment, and that this found a formal match in the poetry and fiction of the time. But after the oil crisis of the 1970s, publishers retrenched, and writers followed suit: it was a drearily safe decade for fiction and poetry. For Stevenson, to be formally innovative is to be politically innovative:

self-reflexive, postmodernist concern with language and form continued to highlight the still wider powers, in their age, of commercial, political, or other media interests. Authors who drew most attention to their own form and language – novelists such as John Berger, Doris Lessing, or Rushdie himself; poets such as J.H. Prynne – were in this way among the most politically committed in the period.

Stevenson’s prejudices are strongly aired in his chapters on poetry. He is less at ease discussing verse than he is fiction or drama, tending to rely on a group of highly suspect surrogates: A. Alvarez’s noisy essay ‘Beyond the Gentility Principle’ (the introduction to his anthology The New Poetry, which promoted Hughes and Plath over the stodgy Movement), Edward Lucie-Smith and, terrifyingly, Michael Horovitz, the editor of ‘one of the decade’s genuinely polemical anthologies: Children of Albion (1969)’. Stevenson’s fondness for Prynne over Larkin is less offensive than his reasons for dismissing Larkin, which betray a shallow ear. Larkin is seen off as ‘the typical Movement author’ (but surely, precisely the untypical one, because the best?), a conservative who was often ‘backward-looking in theme as well as style’. His beautiful poem ‘MCMXIV’, which ends ‘Never such innocence again’, is described as ‘nostalgic for the Edwardian era’, but the lyric is really an acute examination of nostalgia, a poem which sees that our loss of innocence is that we can no longer see their loss of innocence without nostalgia. When the poem tries to see that lost Edwardian world, it deliberately distances and pictorialises its blurry subjects:

The crowns of hats, the sun

On moustached archaic faces

Grinning as if it were all

An August Bank Holiday lark . . .

The farthings and sovereigns,

And dark-clothed children at play

Called after kings and queens . . .

Later, Stevenson refers to ‘a Larkin-like distancing of strong feelings’. He appears not to have read ‘Aubade’, or the most fearsome poem written in this period about old age and mortality, ‘The Old Fools’, let alone a passionate little lyric like ‘Cut Grass’. Instead, we have credulous sociology about the Mersey poets (‘the Liverpool poets engaged regularly and directly with the popular politics of the 1960s’). And it seems that while Larkin’s (misdescribed) nostalgia is unallowable, some forms of nostalgia are allowed: Tony Harrison is commended for the way in which he contrasts ‘the end of the Second World War with later decades, attempting to account for the collapse of the postwar consensus so conspicuous after the Thatcher government came to power’.

As the 1970s turn into the 1980s, Stevenson tends to leave behind his narrative of decline and fall, and instead drags a very large net through contemporary waters, apparently fearful of missing the slightest sardine. His discussion of the novel is sabotaged by the complete lack of selectivity. Page after page thickly ripples with titles and dates and names, most of them forgotten already. The lack of shaping is further hobbled by Oxford’s disastrous rubric, in which ‘English’ work is defined as that ‘produced or significantly disseminated in England’ or what ‘comes from, or bears upon, England’. Scottish, Irish and Welsh authors are excluded; and only those inhabitants of the former colonies who lived in or wrote about England can be included. (Oxford’s guidelines would have turned its own properly capacious Companion to English Literature into a mouse-eaten cheese.) So Muriel Spark is curiously introduced as ‘a Scottish author, but one widely influential on English fiction in the 1960s and later’. Through no fault of Stevenson’s, we have an account of English fiction since 1960 which mentions William Trevor (many of whose stories have been set in England) only passingly, as Irish, and which is constitutionally unable to devote space to two of the finest postwar British novels, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (by a Scot) and A House for Mr Biswas (doesn’t bear on England). Oxford’s intentions are doubtless noble as well as practical; but the effect is to reintroduce the colonialism they wish to banish, since it seems unlikely that Oxford will soon be proposing a multi-volume ‘Oxford Scottish Literary History’ or ‘Oxford Trinidadian Literary History’. (Bruce King’s final volume in this series, The Internationalisation of English Literature, deals more fully with some of the writers excluded by Stevenson, but the enterprise inevitably has an atmosphere of mopping up.[*])

Mind you, Stevenson’s three lines on A House for Mr Biswas make one glad that the rules allowed him to venture no further: ‘The novel uses its broad range of characters and their conflicts for comic effect, but they also offer extended insight into a complex, multiracial society, both hopeful and fearful for its future.’ That sentence might be a Rorschach test: if you find nothing much the matter with it, you are an unsaved academic. Apart from the inconvenience of being largely untrue – there are almost no non-Indians of any significance in the novel – and its grating habit of sounding less like criticism than an AGM report, it is almost morally offensive that this should be the only description of that marvellous novel.

Stevenson uses David Lodge’s image of contemporary literary production as ‘an aesthetic supermarket’ in which an ‘astonishing variety of styles’ are on offer, and links this with Malcolm Bradbury’s similar picture of ‘a great shopping mall world of pluri-culture’. This sanctions Stevenson’s dragnet; but of course such images allow him to produce the very supermarket he claims to be merely finding. His lack of selectivity only stacks the shelves higher. After the renewal of the English novel in the 1980s – Amis, Barnes, Ishiguro, Mo, Carter, Rushdie, McEwan – we move into the free-for-all 1990s, in which realism is for sale alongside genre fiction, postmodern fun alongside ladlit.

What this history lacks, ironically enough, is a sense of literary history. At one point Stevenson writes that ‘the parochialism often seen in English fiction was also avoided through renewed importation of forms and strategies from abroad’ (oh, that AGM pall again). He is referring to the internationalisation of English fiction that took place in the 1980s, as writers like Ishiguro and Rushdie produced their first significant books. But there was also importation from a native English tradition. Stevenson nowhere mentions the enormous influence of Dickens on postwar British fiction, perhaps the most unexpected of developments. Mr Biswas, of course, reads Dickens with great delight, and Dickens has been influential not only on Naipaul but on Muriel Spark, on Angus Wilson (detrimentally, I would say), on Angela Carter, on Rushdie and Amis, even on Zadie Smith. The interest in grotesque portraiture, in caricature over character, has been wildly Dickensian. A discussion of why this has happened, of how it might be linked to a crisis of characterisation in postwar English fiction, would have been illuminating. But it is hard, perhaps impossible, to further such an analysis if you are never willing to offer value judgments. Stevenson praises (I think) Hawksmoor for being ‘often disdainful of conventional realism, and of logical, temporal orders of cause and effect’. Such a comment makes sense only if one then relates how disastrous that ‘disdain’ has been for Ackroyd’s later fiction, with its primitive storytelling, lurid characters, and superstitious myth-making. Such an admission might have led Stevenson to other instances in which writers who seem to ‘disdain’ realism end up confirming its difficulty and prestige precisely because they are so bad at it: Rushdie’s vulgar cartoons come to mind, or A.S. Byatt’s self-description as one who practises ‘self-conscious realism’ (surely at once too self-conscious and not real enough).

But none of this can be done, or even attempted, if aesthetics are not a real concern, and if writers’ intentions are continually ploughed into ideology. To discuss fiction aesthetically, in a book like Stevenson’s, would mean being aware, say, that a novel like A House for Mr Biswas is worth a hundred pretenders; selection would mean letting a king squeeze out a commoner. Alas, there are no highs and lows in Stevenson’s account of English literary history, just endlessly peopled plains.

[*] Oxford, 386 pp., £30, February, 0 19 818428 X.