John Sutherland

John Sutherland’s Life of Stephen Spender was published in May 2004. Formerly of University College London, he teaches at Caltech in Pasadena.

Diary: Do books have a future?

John Sutherland, 25 May 2006

South Lake Avenue in Pasadena, a few hundred yards from where I’m sitting, is named for the now dried up stream that once ran from the San Gabriel mountains to the Los Angeles basin. It was always a handsome thoroughfare, and the city invested tens of millions in the late 1970s to make it into Pasadena’s own Rodeo Drive. The investment didn’t entirely pay off: South Lake...

Tom Maschler’s memoir, Publisher, appeared in bookshops on 18 March. It might as well not have done. The book was dead on arrival, having been subjected to a barrage of premature review and ridicule. Private Eye’s Bookworm feasted on the still warm corpse. The Guardian’s Editor page ‘digested’ it satirically: ‘I was 27 when Hemingway shot himself. His death...

‘Xtopher,’ Stephen Spender wrote in April 1931, ‘is a cactus.’ Prickly, solitary, self-sufficient, hard to handle and difficult to love. How to get to grips with ‘Isherwood’ (as he has chosen to address him) was a problem for Peter Parker: something that perhaps explains the 12 years this usually brisk biographer has spent on his task. A main difficulty is...

Publishers keep good records because those that don’t go out of business. Backlists and post-mortem copyright dispose them to be historically minded about their dealings. It was only relatively recently, however, that libraries and other storehouses of scholarship first became aware of the cultural, literary, historical and scientific value of the intact publisher’s archive,...

Diary: The crisis in academic publishing

John Sutherland, 22 January 2004

Last May Stephen Greenblatt, who was then president of the Modern Languages Association, the literary academic’s equivalent of the Teamsters, circulated a letter among its twenty thousand or so members. ‘Over the last few decades,’ he wrote, ‘most departments of language and literature have come to demand that junior faculty members produce, as a condition for being...

Doughy: Conrad’s letters

John Sutherland, 4 December 2003

The multi-volume Collected Letters is more of a literary monument than a necessary scholarly resource. The club of 20th-century novelists thus honoured is as exclusive as the strictest Leavisite (if any remain) or St James blackballer could wish: D.H. Lawrence (seven vols), Virginia Woolf (six vols), Thomas Hardy (seven vols) and Katherine Mansfield (four vols). The Conrad project, begun in...

Diary: My Grandmother the Thief

John Sutherland, 21 August 2003

My grandmother was born, I think, in 1890. She was among the first in her family to benefit from Forster’s 1870 Universal Education Act, just as I, two generations later, was the first to benefit from Butler’s 1944 Education Act. Her own grandmother probably belonged to that semi-literate mass of women who could read fluently, but not write or ‘figure’. Historically,...

Religious fiction is the hot line in American bookstores. It isn’t a new genre – Pilgrim’s Progress still sells; what’s new is its popularity and profitability; and, most strikingly, its doctrinal aggressiveness. We know that eschatology has filled the vacuum where Cold War ideology used to be. But the Cold War fantasised Mutually Assured Destruction, leaving the faint...

He ate peas with a knife: Douglas Jerrold

John Sutherland, 3 April 2003

The tenth and central chapter of Michael Slater’s biography is entitled ‘Jerrold, Dickens, Thackeray’. This, as Slater reminds us (often), is the company his contemporaries expected Douglas Jerrold to keep. Some partisans might even have thought Slater right to put him first. Dickens and Thackeray were pall-bearers at Jerrold’s funeral and, according to their...

Have you ever tried to write a Victorian novel? Here’s a beginning, with apologies to Sarah Waters and Michel Faber (and a nod to George MacDonald Fraser):

London, 1860. November. A pea-souper billowing up from the flotsam bobbing in the Thames. The gas lamps already blearing. Good things of day begin to drowse. The rookeries are emptying, and their birds of prey making wing to the...

Was Ma Hump to blame? Aldous Huxley

John Sutherland, 11 July 2002

Twentieth-century Huxleys have received less biography than one might have expected. Nicholas Murray usefully fills a gap between Sybille Bedford’s thirty-year-old life of Aldous and the awaited definitive biography by David Bradshaw. With the passing of time, Murray can tell us things prohibited to his predecessor by discretion and the libel laws. At the same time, like Murray’s...

Everyone’s Pal: Louis de Bernières

John Sutherland, 13 December 2001

Who would have expected Louis de Bernières to follow up Captain Corelli’s Mandolin with the soft-centred biography of a lovable pooch? Red Dog could be seen as a reversion to national type – the English, Nabokov witheringly remarked, feel sorry for the blind man’s dog. And where there are soft spots, to coin a book-trade proverb, there’s hard cash. The...

Long live the codex: the future of books

John Sutherland, 5 July 2001

Jason Epstein’s imagination stretches from primeval man, arranging ‘meaningful phonemes to the beat of stone upon stone or to the sound of hollowed logs used as drums’, to the impact on book business, eons hence, of ‘the global village green … undisciplined, polymorphous and polyglot, as has been our fate and our milieu ever since the divine autocracy showed its muscle by toppling the monolingual Tower of Babel’. And yet, for all the grandeur of these moments, Epstein’s perspective will strike cis-Atlantic readers as myopic.

From the apostolic few who gathered in the basement of King School in Akron, Ohio, in June 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous has grown into the largest secular self-help organisation in the Western world. With its ten million members, it’s bigger than the Freemasons, the Rotarians, the TUC, the White Aryan Resistance, the Samaritans, the KKK, the Women’s Institute and – in terms of...

Paper or Plastic? Richard Powers

John Sutherland, 10 August 2000

Every year since 1981 the MacArthur Foundation has made awards to between 20 and 40 Americans (depending on how the stock-market performs) across all the fields of human endeavour – less sport and business, which have their own prizes. The Foundation recognises the familiar élite activities from architecture through poetry and theoretical physics to zoology. But it is also interested in less confined genius. This year’s list includes a teacher ‘who uses unlikely building materials, such as old tyres, scrap wood and bottles, to construct beautiful and ingenious homes in remote regions of Alabama’ and ‘a woman who, working from her wheelchair, is championing the rights and changing the lives of women with disabilities in the poorest regions of the world’.’‘

Wife Overboard: Thackeray

John Sutherland, 20 January 2000

All Thackeray biographers should feel a pang of guilt. Disgusted by Victorian whitewash memorials, he instructed his daughters: ‘Mind, no biography … consider it my last testament and desire.’ He believed that biography – insofar as it presumed to explain another human being – was futile in any case. ‘Ah, sir,’ he observed (with that cynicism which so vexed his contemporaries), ‘a distinct universe walks about under your hat and under mine … you and I are but a pair of infinite isolations, with some fellow islands a little more or less near to us.’ Above all, though, Thackeray was averse to having his skeletons rattled by any intruding hand. What were they? He contracted venereal disease at Cambridge, failed to get a degree, lost his patrimony gambling, married injudiciously a wife who went mad, fell in love with his best friend’s wife (probably unadulterously), got involved in a series of bad-tempered rows with Dickens and his bohemian hangers-on. Many authors’ cupboards contain worse.’‘

Thoughtcrime, as conceived by George Orwell, was one of the black flowers of Thirties totalitarianism. By criminalising thought the dictatorial state planned to erase individuality – even an individuality as insignificant as Winston Smith’s. In the Orwellian dystopia the state’s apparatus was primarily bureaucratic: new technology – in the form of the ubiquitous telescreen (TV that watched you) – was instrumental but not central.’

Writing in the Tablet in 1951, Evelyn Waugh described Christopher Isherwood as the best of those British writers who had ‘captured’ the Thirties. It was not, Waugh being Waugh, high praise. Auden he felt to be a mysterious cove comprehensible only to his pals (among whom Waugh did not number himself). Stephen Spender, Waugh declared, had been granted at birth all the fashionable literary neuroses but his fairy godmother ‘quite forgot the gift of literary skill’. (Once celebrated as the Shelley of the Thirties, he was later described by Geoffrey Grigson as the ‘Rupert Brooke of the Depression’.) Isherwood, he grudgingly conceded, could claim ‘accomplishment’. Isherwood returned the tepid compliment, 12 years later, with a script for the Tony Richardson production of The Loved One. The movie regularly makes the lists of alltime turkeys. Would that my enemy had written a book and I might adapt it for the screen.‘

Diary: Sad Professor

John Sutherland, 18 February 1999

Like Diogenes in his tub, Roger Scruton has stripped himself of his professorship of aesthetics to rail, ungowned, against the age in which fate has deposited him. Scruton’s opposition to the times has two current manifestations: one is his lyrical advocacy of the feudal harmonies of the fox-hunt; the other is his hatred of ‘yoof’ culture. In An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture he defines culture three ways. ‘Common culture’ – what anthropologists study – is based in social life and examines how we use our knives and forks. What he calls ‘high culture’ is a quasi-religious superstructure conceived in the Renaissance, and refined in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods. Scruton has evidently been impressed by Matthew Arnold’s declaration that ‘the future of poetry is immense,’ and by Arnold’s confidence that high art can fill the vacancy left by the slow death of God: ‘there is,’ Scruton mystically claims, ‘a making whole, a rejoining of the self to its rightful congregation that come through art and literature.’ He believes that, like hunting, reading Jane Austen is a binding social ritual. TV adaptations don’t count.’‘

It is the dream of entrepreneurs to corner the market but, fortunately for the consumer, few commodities lend themselves to it. Ideally, from the entrepreneur’s point of view, a commodity should be scarce, vitally needed, highly priced, shortlived and regularly (but not too easily) replenished. In the new field of information technology, scientific research has become a tempting target for the would-be cornerer. The current battles being fought over its ownership have implications that extend a long way beyond the laboratory.

The Fight for Eyeballs: The Drudge Report

John Sutherland, 1 October 1998

In the week beginning 7 September, a member of the White House security staff – who else could it have been? – sent Matt Drudge, cyber muckraker, a CCTV clip, ‘on condition that its origin and owner not be disclosed’. The tape showed the President returning from his morning jog in August 1993 accompanied by a troupe of body guards and young staffers. In the blunt words of a pseudonymous commentator on one of the e-mail chat-sites which cling barnacle-like to the Drudge Report, it showed a post-run young female ‘jiggling her tits’ and ‘tenderly’ wiping the Presidential brow. Finally, after the others were dismissed, Ms Jiggler adjourned with the President into the windowless hallway off the Oval Office, later to be made famous by the Starr report. Over his shoulder the President enquired how much time he had before his next appointment. Enough, it seemed.

Home Stretch: David Storey

John Sutherland, 17 September 1998

Say ‘David Storey’ and readers of my (and his) generation will recall the final shot of This Sporting Life: Frank Machin (Richard Harris), mired, spavined, raising himself on the rugby field to lurch back into hopeless battle. His life as a professional is over. Football chews up its workforce faster even than the pits. But Arthur doesn’t take it lying down: no longer a sportsman but still a man. Storey adapted his original novel for Lindsay Anderson, who directed the film, but he curtailed the ending. On the printed page, after Machin’s legs have ‘betrayed’ him on the pitch, there is a final scene in the changing-room. The players have had their communal bath. Someone, inevitably, has pissed in it. Machin looks around him, ‘had my ankles strapped, got dressed and put my teeth in’. As in the film, the scene expresses a refusal to be ground down, but in a grittier, less self-glorifying way. Getting your teeth knocked out (something Anderson plays up) can be glamorous: wearing dentures for the next forty years less so.‘

Think again, wimp: Virgin Porn

John Sutherland, 16 April 1998


Enisled: Matthew Arnold

John Sutherland, 19 March 1998

The last few decades have been good for Matthew Arnold. In 1977, R.H. Super completed the 11-volume Complete Prose Works, a venture that seemed quixotic (‘all those school reports!’) when he began it in 1960. The complete Poems, edited, tidied up and annotated by Kenneth and Miriam Allott, were revised and reissued in 1979. A new edition is on the way from Nicholas Shrimpton. Cecil Lang is up to the second instalment of the Letters (despite fierce crossfire from rival scholars in the letters pages of the TLS). Following the line opened by Lionel Trilling’s ‘biography of a mind’ in America and by Raymond Williams’s Arnoldian meditations in Culture and Society in Britain, Stefan Collini produced his impressive Matthew Arnold: A Critical Portrait in 1994. And there have been two cap-à-pie biographies: Park Honan’s in 1981 (with its provocative identification of ‘Marguerite’) and Nicholas Murray’s two years ago (with its no-nonsense put-down of Honan’s Marguerite thesis).‘

Flying the Coop: Mama Trollope

John Sutherland, 19 February 1998

Most male novelists have learned to read at their mothers’ knee. Only one comes to mind who learned to write novels from observing his mother. The essence of what we think of as the Trollopian method – early rising, tradesmanlike application to the task, and indomitable ‘cheerfulness’ – can be traced directly to the novelist’s novelist mother. There is a description in An Autobiography of Mrs Trollope heroically penning her light fiction to keep the wolf from the door, while her children die, one by one, from consumption:’‘

The Browse Function

John Sutherland, 27 November 1997

What is ‘earth’s biggest bookstore’? It’s American like every other biggest thing. But, nonsensically, a court case, settled on 21 October, concluded that two book-retailers can legally trademark the ‘earth’s biggest’ claim. One is the Barnes and Noble octopus, with 25,000 employees, franchised outlets in every mall in North America and a $3 billion annual turnover. The other, (‘Amazon-dot-com’), is a bookless high-tech office in Seattle, with a mere five hundred employees, and yet to make a cent’s profit for its shareholders. They can both call themselves ‘biggest’ because they operate in different dimensions: one is a ‘physical’ or ‘walk-in’ bookshop; the other a ‘virtual’ or ‘web-front’ bookshop. The latter is growing very fast and the former is very worried.

Black Electricities

John Sutherland, 30 October 1997

‘I told the Führer that I had recently been reading Carlyle’s book on Frederick the Great,’ Goebbels records in his diary of 27 February 1945:‘

Unplug the car and let’s go!

John Sutherland, 21 August 1997

Until 1 January 1996, it seemed as if three mighty powers – American science, General Motors and the State of California – would bring about the most momentous change in personal transport since the carriage went horseless. Now, it seems, ‘Ev1’ (Electric Vehicle One, or the ‘electric turkey’ as critics have unkindly called it) may join the De Lorean, cold fusion and Clive Sinclair’s C5 self-propelled sitz-bath in the technology junkyard.

Bounty Hunter

John Sutherland, 17 July 1997

Self-respecting guys don’t read Westerns. In fact, unless you look carefully, no one seems to read them. The cowboy novel rates lower even than pornography in the scale of cultural visibility. W.H. Smith (true to their origins: they won a monopoly at railway stations in 1848 in return for an undertaking to purify the nation’s reading matter) recently banished their modest selection of top-shelf skin magazines. If, by some perverse fatwa, Westerns were similarly proscribed, no action would be required by our moral guardians. W.H. Smith have sections devoted to Horror, Romance, War, Teen Fiction and Science Fiction – but Westerns, as the cowpoke would put it, are scarcer than hen’s teeth.’

Higher Man

John Sutherland, 22 May 1997

The authorities are always interested in the assassin’s bookshelf. The Israeli police were quick to release the fact that Yigal Amir had a copy of The Day of the Jackal. Before Theodore Kaczynski, the likely ‘Unabomber’, had even been charged, the press had announced that one of his noms de guerre was ‘Conrad’ (the nom de plume of Teodor Korzeniowski) and that there was a copy of The Secret Agent on his bookshelf. In the Oklahoma bombing case, now being tried in Denver, the book in question is The Turner Diaries. The FBI, who have labelled William L. Pierce’s prudently pseudonymous novel ‘the bible of the racist right’, didn’t take long to leak the information that it accompanied Timothy McVeigh on his (alleged) bombing raid on 19 April 1995. Reference to The Turner Diaries was prominent in Rage and Betrayal, the highly prejudicial ABC programme of 12 April 1996, in which the newscaster Peter Jennings called McVeigh a ‘monster’ and cited passages from Pierce’s book. Parallels between bomb-making in The Turner Diaries and by McVeigh were made much of in Joseph Hartzler’s opening address to the jury. The only material evidence produced by the first witness for the prosecution, Charles Hanger, the state trooper who made the arrest, was the fact that, in addition to his gun and knife, McVeigh had in his yellow Mercury copies of a number of tendentious passages from The Turner Diaries (there was some conflict in press reports as to whether they were handwritten, xeroxed or merely highlighted in a copy of the book). Mention has been made of the book on virtually every day of the trial.


John Sutherland, 14 November 1996

Earlier this year it was announced that Patricia Cornwell, America’s newest Queen of Crime, had defected from Scribner (the publisher who ‘discovered’ her) to Putnam. In defiance of trade courtesy, Cornwell bad-mouthed Scribner unmercifully on leaving: they had never pushed her books hard enough, she was reported as claiming, treating her like some ‘midlist author’. She promptly infuriated her new publisher by divulging precise details of their deal to her local paper in Richmond, Virginia. Putnam wanted to leak the figures in their own good time and in places of their choosing, as part of a long-term promotion campaign for their expensive new acquisition. Cornwell’s pre-emptive disclosure showed her belief that Putnam’s record-breaking sum was a mark of her achievement, not their largesse.

Huff and Puff

John Sutherland, 3 October 1996

Every summer, with the absence of Parliamentary news and the arrival of GCSE, A-level and degree results, the great education debate starts up again. This year’s is accompanied by two jeremiads: one from a politician, the other from a journalist. Both aim at a mass audience. All Must Have Prizes is promoted by its publisher as ‘the book every parent must read’; We Should Know Better is held to ‘chime in with the current collective mood of the nation in much the same way as Will Hutton’s bestselling The State of the Nation did last year’.

Devil take the hindmost

John Sutherland, 14 December 1995

Among other certain things (death, taxes etc) is the rule that no work of science fiction will ever win the Booker Prize – not even the joke 1890s version. H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine had no chance against ‘literary’ authors like Hardy and Conrad. In the twenty-five years it has been running, no SF title, as I recall, has even been shortlisted for Martyn Goff’s real thing. In 1940, T.S. Eliot struck the recurrent establishment note when he labelled Wells a ‘popular entertainer’.(Dickens was stigmatised with the same term by F.R. Leavis in The Great Tradition.) Patrick Parrinder has been opposing such anti-Wellsian prejudice for the best part of a quarter of a century. His opposition takes the form of scholarly works which patiently mount the case for critical respect. Parrinder’s contributions include the Critical Heritage volume (1972), a study of Wells’s composition methods, H.G. Wells under Revision (1990, co-edited with Christopher Rolfe), and the reissue of Wells’s scientific romances currently appearing under the World’s Classics imprint. (For copyright reasons – Wells having died in 1946 – this series will probably only be available in America.) Parrinder’s more theoretical interventions include Science Fiction, Its Criticism and Teaching (1980), a work which places Wells as ‘the pivotal figure in the evolution of the scientific romance into modern science fiction’.’

The Great NBA Disaster

John Sutherland, 19 October 1995

Wednesday, 27 September 1995 was not a day lacking in newsworthy events. Arogue Japanese trader had out-Leesoned Leeson by losing a billion dollars on Wall Street without his employers noticing; Clinton had successfully, as it seemed, bombed the Serbs and blackmailed the Israelis to the peace table; Humphrey the missing Downing Street cat had been found. What the Times chose to lead with on Wednesday morning was BOOK PRICING AGREEMENT IS SHATTERED, with the explanatory sub-heading ‘Discount War Begins on Top Titles’ and an unflattering mugshot of Sir Kingsley Amis over the caption: ‘Book Likely to be Cheaper’.


John Sutherland, 8 June 1995

In these columns six years ago, among a chorus of praise for the new, revised Oxford English Dictionary, OED2, Charlotte Brewer entered a dissenting opinion (3 August 1989):


John Sutherland, 23 March 1995

The problem T.H. Huxley presents for the would-be popular biographer is evident in his entry in the Concise DNB:

The Great Copyright Disaster

John Sutherland, 12 January 1995

Momentous changes in copyright law, such as those of 1710, 1842, 1890 and 1911, are preceded by periods of turmoil and radical uncertainty about the rights and wrongs of intellectual property. We are in such a period now. The problem, in the short term, is how the British Government will implement the ‘harmonising’ of the latest EU regulations on copyright. The decision to accept Brussels’ instruction (EC Directive 93/98/EEC) was taken in October 1993. A consultation document has been issued by the Intellectual Property Policy Directorate in the DTI and a final decision is expected in July 1995. Ominously, as Eurosceptics will think, it looks inevitable that harmonisation will mean Britain and its European partners (a word which has become as double-edged as ‘harmony’) falling into step with Germany. Germany has a 70-year post-mortem rule, as opposed to 50 years in the UK, and a greater reverence for authors’ ‘moral rights’; whereas the Anglo-Saxon, Brito-American book trade has traditionally been petty bourgeois about the sale of literary property, assuming authors to surrender all claims when the rights are sold to the publisher. A principal justification for the longer term of protection in Germany is the interruption to booktrade activity caused by the Second World War. Mein Kampf, to be tasteless about it, was unsaleable for two decades after hostilities, thus robbing the author’s estate of the full value of its property. The European-wide extension next summer will mean that Mein Kampf – and its author’s speeches, which have a healthy sale in the audio market – will be protected beyond 1995 (when, by the old law, they would have entered the public domain in the UK and some other European countries) and will continue to remunerate Hitler’s heirs and assignees until 2015.’

An Inspector Calls

John Sutherland, 10 November 1994

Government dealings with the country’s agencies for culture and higher learning used to be determined by the arm’s-length principle. That is to say, much like an 18th-century patron, the ministry would give the Arts Council or the University Grants Committee a large sum of money, trusting that they would apply it to Britain’s best advantage. Better poetry and better education would happen. Over the last fifteen years non-intervention has given way to accountability via audit and quality assessment. In universities this means that ‘teaching’ and ‘research’ are now scrutinised and graded by outside panels of peers every three to five years. For teaching, the scale has three steps from ‘unsatisfactory’, through ‘satisfactory’, to ‘excellent’. For research it now goes from 1 (unsatisfactory), through 3a and 3b (the satisfactory grades), to 5 (of the highest international standard) with a pinnacle of 5* (too good for words). ‘Subject areas’ – effectively university departments – are assessed as units. The results are published as league tables. Funding follows excellence in the research exercise (which is in its third fully-fledged round) but not yet in teaching (which is in its first). About 15 per cent of departments make the top division and there is a cluster of high-performing departments in a small nucleus of a dozen or so British universities. Aware of their publicly-ratified superiority, this é1ite, the so-called Russell Group of universities, has begun to lobby for special status. As a founder member, Derek Roberts, Provost of UCL, puts it, ‘we recognise we are different – or we force everyone to be the same. Either we have an élite of about ten, or we face catastrophe.’

Exceptionally Wonderful Book

John Sutherland, 6 October 1994

The most valuable prize ever awarded for a work of fiction was the $150,000 put up by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1948 for Ross Lockridge’s epic of the American Civil War, Raintree County. The prizegiver’s motive in setting up this award was venal. They wanted to spawn a blockbuster series of ‘books of the film’ in the manner of Gone with the Wind. The longer-term aim was to out-spectacle TV and force the pesky new medium to ‘crawl back into its tube’. It all went wrong. The 1957 film, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, was epic only in the scale of its box-office failure. The chronically self-destructive Clift lost his good looks in an automobile crash during production, and has two disconcertingly different faces at various points in the narrative. Lockridge was so depressed by the scorn that the prize brought him that he killed himself the same year. Film, novel and prize are all forgotten. TV won.

Among the Picts

John Sutherland, 18 August 1994

Lewis Grassic Gibbon (the pen-name of James Leslie Mitchell) is put forward as his country’s great 20th-century novelist: the Scottish D.H. Lawrence. Gibbon’s reputation substantially rests on A Scots Quair (‘quire’ – or ‘gathering of sheets’), also called ‘The Mearns Trilogy’, Mearns being an ancient name for Kincardineshire, now itself an ancient name after the county reorganisation of 1975. This cycle of novels follows the career of a Scotswoman, Chris Guthrie, from childhood on a croft in the North-Eastern coastlands, through the disruption of the First World War and two marriages, to middle age in a soulless city, ‘Dundon’, which combines repugnant features of Aberdeen and Dundee. The first segment, Sunset Song, is regarded in Scotland as a national classic and is studied in schools and universities. Gibbon remains a blind spot for most English readers. Shamefully, he has no entry in the DNB, a distinction he yields to such maestri as Edgar Wallace and Elinor Glyn.’

When in Rom

John Sutherland, 9 June 1994

Ask what has been the single greatest influence on literary research since the Sixties and the answer might be the Xerox machine, the jumbo jet or Jacques Derrida. Ask what will transform literary research in the next ten years and a likely answer is The English Poetry Full-Text Database. This project, whose three serial instalments will be complete this summer, has reportedly clocked up almost a hundred sales. That may not seem a lot, until you multiply it by the unit price of £30,000 (£5000 cheaper if you got in early). Chadwyck-Healey is a commercial publisher and the sales figures are now well past breakeven into substantial profit. More important, enough databases are available for the establishment of an academic information infrastructure – user networks, newsletters, bulletin boards, help groups and team research projects. All English departments in the UK will have at least one colleague who is nagging the library to buy it or is actually using it.

All of Denmark was at his feet

John Sutherland, 12 May 1994

According to an embittered Steinbeck, literary criticism is ‘a kind of ill-tempered party game in which nobody gets kissed’. Twenty-five years after his death he receives a big wet one in the shape of Jay Parini’s biography, which comes with much fanfare designed to rehabilitate him as one of America’s great writers. A handsome ‘Steinbeck award’ has been set up by the writer’s widow; a South Bank Show has been tied in; ‘a year-long marketing campaign by Mandarin promoting Steinbeck’s backlist’ has been launched.

Convenience Killing

John Sutherland, 7 April 1994

Scott Bradfield is a campus novelist. Still just under forty, he taught for five years at the University of California at Irvine while getting his PhD in American literature. He then took a job at a worthy but less prestigious school – Storrs University in Connecticut, where he now teaches English. While earning his degree and his bread in the classroom. Bradfield has, over the last ten years, put together an impressive corpus of fiction comprising two novels and a collection of short stories. All his long and short fiction is set in California, the quintessential place: ‘California is America squared,’ one of his characters says. ‘It’s the place where you go to find more America than you ever thought possible.’ The more astringent New England milieu seems not yet to have penetrated into Bradfield’s fiction.’

The Annual MLA Disaster

John Sutherland, 16 December 1993

At the 1992 MLA convention in New York there were some 12,000 registered and paid-up members in attendance. It is, one is told, the largest function of its kind in North America – and gatherings of professors don’t come bigger elsewhere. Certainly not in Britain, where the MLA’s anaemic cousin, UTE (the University Teachers of English conference), counts itself lucky to get attendance in three figures. The MLA, with a current enrolment of 31,500, was not always as big. Just 40 people came to the first convention in 1883, out of a total membership of 126. Attendance progressively increased, from one thousand in 1930 to five thousand in 1959. Then, with the explosion of higher education, it leapt to 12,300 in 1966, at which level it has stabilised, although there will be a few less this year at Toronto – an oddly colonial choice of location for a national rally.’


John Sutherland, 18 November 1993

Say ‘Iain Banks’ and the person you are talking to will say ‘The Wasp Factory.’ Banks may have as much trouble getting out from under the success of his first novel as did William Golding. It was a memorable debut. The Wasp Factory provoked a moral panic in 1984. The TLS critic called it the ‘literary equivalent of the nastiest kind of juvenile delinquency’; Margaret Forster thought it less a novel than the script for a video nasty. Young male novelists routinely seek to give maximum offence. Martin Amis did so in 1975 by calling a novel Dead Babies. In The Wasp Factory Banks recounted acts of child-on-child sadism in a deadpan. Holden Caulfield monologue which suggested that serial killing was a minor rite of passage, as insignificant in adult retrospect as squeezing pimples or playing conkers:

How not to do it

John Sutherland, 22 July 1993

The British Library is undergoing the most drastic transformation in its 162-year history. The Board, via its Press and Public Relations Unit, offers us a preview of the library of the future – BL 2000. The presentational style is that of the glossy super-confident company report and the abbreviated ‘aims and goals’ phraseology beloved of macho commerce. Successful business operatives (‘winners’) waste no time on words. The imperative forms of ‘will’ and ‘shall’ feature prominently (‘I will drown and nobody shall save me,’ as the unlucky Frenchman is supposed to have shouted to impassive British spectators on the shore). By the year 2000, we are told, among 11 other willed predictions, ‘the British Library will achieve maximum economy, efficiency, and value for money’ and nothing shall stand in its way.’


John Sutherland, 8 July 1993

‘In order to write this book, I had to do a great deal of research,’ Rupert Thomson tells us; the research for Air and Fire evidently took two forms. The narrative centres on the quixotic attempt by a disciple of Gustave Eiffel to build a modernist cathedral, based on the Tower’s logical steel geometry. This would be unsurprising in 1890-something, except that this architect chooses to build his cathedral in a god-forsaken small town in Baja California, the peninsula that dangles along the West Coast with the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Pacific wastes on the other. It’s one of America’s Erewhons, forgotten by history. Air and Fire’s epigraph is taken from Johan Jakob Baegert, one of the region’s few chroniclers: ‘Among people like the California Indians, and in a land like theirs, not many significant events occur which deserve to be recorded and known to posterity.’

My Missus

John Sutherland, 13 May 1993

A hundred and fifty years ago William Thackeray observed – after a trawl through London bookstalls – that middle-class litterateurs like himself knew (and cared) less about working-class literature than about Lapland. In a much quoted essay twenty years later, Wilkie Collins, after a similar expedition, coined the phrase ‘the Unknown Public’. It was something of a misnomer since the public was well enough known. It was their ‘entertaining literature’ that was the mystery. English society put such a moral premium on advanced literacy that it was shameful for a middle-class person to be caught buying a penny dreadful or a mill-girl romance in anything other than a spirit of intrepid anthropological duty. One glimpses the same nervousness today: the eagerness with which left copies of the Sun are seized on in railway carriages by passengers who could never bring themselves to be seen buying a copy; the eyes studiously averted from the top shelf while buying the Spectator or Private Eye.’

Ripping Yarns

John Sutherland, 8 April 1993

Victorian biography has recently come in clusters. In the last decade there have been four authoritative biographies of Trollope; two of Dickens; two of Wilkie Collins; three of Stevenson (one down, two to come); and – with the present centennial haul – three of Tennyson. Given the huge expenditure of scholarly energy modern biography demands it would be rational to redistribute some of it. One would like more studies such as Claire Tomalin’s of Ellen Ternan, or Rosemary Ashton’s of G.H. Lewes, which illumine by side-light. But just as publishers have found it pays to have five separate editions of Barchester Towers in print, but no Meredith or Lytton, so it pays to commission the same big familiar lives time and again.’

Well done, you forgers

John Sutherland, 7 January 1993

It is difficult to talk sensibly about literary forgery when one has to call it that. The term carries heavy legal baggage. Criminal forgery – in the form of counterfeit money or altered wills – is a major felony. Like poisoning, or arson, it receives sentences of medieval harshness. Literary forgery is much hazier. Meum and Tuum are routinely confused in creative writing. Many of literature’s conventions – the ‘found’ manuscript, the ‘true history’, pseudonymy – originate in primitive forgery, or mimic it. It is not clear that even an arch literary forger like Thomas J. Wise actually committed a criminal act for which he could be prosecuted by the DPP. It would be sensible to replace the term ‘literary forgery’ with Anthony Grafton’s neologism, ‘pseudepigrapha’. This blanket description would cover everything from Chatterton’s fake poems to George MacDonald Fraser’s ‘Flashman’ spoofs without any automatic presumptions of wrong-doing.’


John Sutherland, 3 December 1992

Ian Bell protests his disqualifications as a biographer rather too much: ‘I have approached Stevenson in the most unscholarly way. I am a journalist, and do not pretend to be anything else.’ But Bell, as he is at pains to point out, is a Scottish journalist and it is through the privilege of shared race and place of origin that he claims a blood-intimacy denied scholars. The key to Stevenson’s personality, as Bell apprehends it, is that however far he travelled, he could never leave. Scotland came too. In the wilds of Northern California, where he and his wife spent their honeymoon as Silverado squatters, Stevenson pondered the paradoxes of being a Scot out of Scotland. Many emigrants sentimentalise the old country – not least fellow Celts like the Welsh and Irish. But the difference with Scots is that, however moist-eyed, they carry with them an undimmed recollection of how awful the place was and how right any sane person is to get out and stay out: ‘There is no special loveliness in that gray country, with its rainy, sea-beat archipelago; its fields of dark mountains; its unsightly places, black with coal; its treeless, sour, unfriendly-looking cornlands; its quaint, gray, castled city, where the bells clash of a Sunday, and the wind squalls, and the salt showers fly and beat. I do not even know if I desire to live there; but let me hear, in some far land, a kindred voice sing out, “Oh, why left I my hame?” and it seems at once as if no beauty under the kind heavens, and no society of the wise and good, can repay me for my absence from my country. And though I think I would rather die elsewhere, yet in my heart of hearts I long to be buried among good Scots clods.’’


John Sutherland, 5 November 1992

A man of many literary parts, Ian Hamilton came to biography late and triumphantly with his life of the dead but still warm Robert Lowell. Riding high, he went on to attempt an unauthorised life of the aged but very much alive J.D. Salinger and was comprehensively outfoxed by the second most reclusive man in American letters. Hamilton wrote up his experience as a rueful memoir, In Search of J.D. Salinger. Keepers of the Flame is a further cogitation on the woes of biography, this time in a more objectively historical context. Hamilton offers 22 case studies, from John Donne – the first properly biographed English author – to Philip Larkin of last month’s Observer fame.’

On the Salieri Express

John Sutherland, 24 September 1992

Britain’s two leading campus novelists have long broken out of the small worlds mapped in Eating people is wrong and The British Museum is falling down. David Lodge’s latest, Paradise News, crosses at least ten time zones from Rummidge, over the Pacific Rim, to Hawaii. Doctor Criminale clocks up fewer frequent-flyer miles, but short-hauls hectically. The narrative opens in London, flies to Vienna, boards the Salieri Express for Budapest, then chuffs on to Milan, from where it cruises to a luxurious island on Lake Como, then to Lausanne. A brief interlude on Lake Geneva is followed by a long jaunt to Buenos Aires. A climax is reached in Brussels, ‘the heart of our brave new Europe’. An epilogue follows in ‘Schlossburg’, Southern Germany, site of one of the four conferences that feature in the novel. At Schlossburg, Henri Mensonge, scheduled to speak on the totally deconstructed self, fails to arrive: Bradbury loves a donnish joke. It all winds up with a postscript set in Norwich. At a staid University Teachers of English get-together George Steiner, Frank Kermode and Seamus Heaney do their party pieces and a novelist – the author of Doctor Criminale, we must suppose – reads from his upcoming work, ‘whose ending he seems not to know’. The publisher’s blurb laconically informs us that Bradbury lives in Norwich and ‘travels a good deal.’’

Down, don, down

John Sutherland, 6 August 1992

More did mean worse – although not quite in the way Kingsley Amis feared. He and his Black Paper colleagues misjudged what would happen to ‘standards’ after the expansionist Robbins Report. The British university product – the education of undergraduates and scholarly research – has never been better than it now is, nor its international reputation higher. In 1990, a poll of European participants in Erasmus gave top place in seven out of 11 mainstream academic subjects to a British university, Erasmus being a transfer credit scheme by which undergraduates can earn a home degree by study abroad. The brightest young European minds will be drawn magnetically to Britain. British universities continue to be major exporters to traditional Anglophone markets, sustaining an imperial authority long after Empire has vanished. Expatriate Britons and natives who have profitably studied in Britain will be found at leading departments everywhere in North America and Australasia.’

The Fire This Time

John Sutherland, 28 May 1992

Future historians looking back at the Rodney King insurrection in South Central Los Angeles will not see (or not just see) another in the line of racial explosions which go back through Watts, the Zoot Suit riots, to the ‘Yellow Peril’ pogroms of the early 20th century. What distinguishes this particular affray by (and against) a Californian ethnic minority is that it was the first such to be entirely and comprehensively covered by television.

Lucky Brrm

John Sutherland, 12 March 1992

Recently in this journal C.K. Stead explained the dilemma of being a popular Australasian performer in England: ‘He can only be fully understood at home: but there he’s likely to encounter sullenness and resentment, which is overcome, paradoxically, by the irresistible force of a fame earned where the comprehension of what he is doing must be less than complete.’ It is not easy to get this paradox straight. If I understand him, Stead claims that for the Australian or New Zealander to make it in England – as many of his generation have – more than reverse migration is required. An exhausting oscillation is imposed on these ornaments of the post-Sixties British scene – a generation of exiles who seem not so much lost as culturally over-extended. Stead was writing in the LRB about his friend and fellow Antipodean, Barry Humphries. Humphries is nowadays primarily a West End and small screen entertainer with his largest viewing constituency in Britain. The same – but more – could be said of Clive James. James has earned himself reputations as a television host, reviewer, newspaper columnist, songwriter, ‘metropolitan critic’, versifier and novelist (Brrm! Brrm! is his third published title). He is the master of many trades and must be envied by more varieties of hack than anyone in England. Envy is sharpened by James’s being so ostentatiously an outsider – still as aggressively Australian as the day he landed on our shores, thirty years ago.’

How to die

John Sutherland, 13 February 1992

Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther is reported to have inspired an epidemic of imitative suicides. It is likely that many of the victims also imitated the incompetence of Werther’s self-slaughter – an act worthier of the Three Stooges than of a latter-day Hamlet. The clock strikes twelve and with the forlorn cry ‘Lotte! Lotte! Farewell! Farewell!’ Goethe’s romantic hero shoots himself in the head. Six hours later a servant comes in to find his master in a pool of blood, but still breathing. It is not until noon that Werther dies. His mistake was to shoot himself with a low-velocity pistol ‘above the right eye’. The ball’s impact was absorbed by the boniest part of the skull, an area which human evolution has specifically fortified against missile attack. Had Werther devoted his last hours to reading anatomy rather than Lessing’s Emilia Galotti, he would have known to shoot himself through the right eye, or up through his open mouth. Literature might have been poorer by an operatic gesture but a lot of young men would have been spared needless agony. An equally famous suicide in literature is similarly botched. Emma Bovary steals arsenic from the pharmacist’s locked cupboard with the vague sense that as a rat poison it must be fast and certain. The result is a day-long agony during which she vomits blood and screams curses at the poison she has injudiciously taken. Emma would have done better with a pint of laudanum – as easily come by in a 19th-century chemist shop as milk.’


John Sutherland, 9 January 1992

Trollope is our most popular and reprinted Victorian novelist. His new companions in the Abbey – Dickens, George Eliot and Hardy – may sell more copies of individual novels, but they cannot match the expansiveness of Trollope’s appeal. Forty or more of his works are currently in print – some in as many as five different editions. But for a century, Trollopians have...

Drabble’s Progress

John Sutherland, 5 December 1991

Some readers do not much like Margaret Drabble’s later novels because they are so different from her earlier successes. She may have lost one public and not as yet entirely won over another. Her novel writing career began brilliantly and precociously with A Summer Bird-Cage (1963), published when she was 24. Since then, the preoccupations of her novels have generally kept pace with what one assumes to have been her personal progress from Cambridge graduate, through marriages, pregnancies, growing children, marital complications, and high professional achievement, to what in 1980 – her 40th year – she memorably called ‘The Middle Ground’. The novel of that title – her ninth – marks a reflective moment in Drabble’s evolution. Between The Middle Ground and her next work of fiction there was a seven-year pause (partly taken up with her immersion in the revised Oxford Companion to English Literature). The Radiant Way (1987) inaugurated a trilogy which continued with A Natural Curiosity (1989) and is now concluded with The Gates of Ivory.’

Sod off, readers

John Sutherland, 26 September 1991

Founded by private subscription in 1841, the London Library was the brainchild of Thomas Carlyle, a serious man. For its 150th anniversary, the present guardians of the London Library have chosen an eminent comedian, John Wells, to write their celebratory history. The sage of Chelsea would not have been amused. But then, nothing did amuse him. He seems to have been immune to such essentially human feelings. Carlyle happened to be in the library in 1875 when Bryan Courthope Hunt – the child of a famously irregular marriage – chose to commit suicide there. Hunt had asked at the issue desk for the second volume of George Henry Lewes’s Problems of Life and Mind but discovered that it was out. Lewes’s wife had been his father’s mistress, which may have had something to do with the tragedy that followed. The young man went to the Magazine Room, where he shot himself in the head with a Derringer pistol, then reloaded and did it again. This led to a quarter of an hour’s hiatus in library services while the dying member was discreetly removed to Charing Cross Hospital and the blood and brains mopped up. Carlyle, who witnessed the confusion and was told what had happened, showed no symptoms of emotion, and went up to the Reading Room, instructing the librarian to fetch the book he had ordered (the second volume of Motley’s The Rise of the Dutch Republic), adding as an afterthought: ‘Another of Thornton Hunt’s bastards gone.’ (In point of fact, Bryan was legitimate; it was his half-siblings by Lewes’s wife who were bastards.) According to another version of the same story, Carlyle burst into a rage, shouting: ‘Nice to think I can’t get my papers just because some confounded relative of Leigh Hunt has gone and shot himself.’ ‘Rage’ seems less likely than absolute indifference to human suffering where access to his books was involved.’

Down with DWEMs

John Sutherland, 15 August 1991

The American press is waging a campaign against American universities, assisted by a barrage of muckraking books. It would be naive or dishonest to claim that there are no follies or crying abuses in the country’s higher education. Few institutions can have given their enemies more ammunition than American universities have over the last few years. Nevertheless the critics propose drastic remedies that go beyond any rational scheme of reform into political vendetta and witch-hunt. In the worst of worlds, the result could be a repeat of the Fifties purge which emasculated the higher education system for a generation.

Self-Made Women

John Sutherland, 11 July 1991

The Feminist Companion to Literature in English is itself the product of impressive feminist companionship. Listed in the preamble are three editors, four consulting editors, 12 contributing editors, and 54 ‘contributors’ – all women, all university teachers. Academic addresses range over three continents (Asia and Africa are missing, although women writers from those corners of the world are generously represented). Vigorous give and take formed the book, which has no obvious predecessor and had to work out its own shape. ‘We have argued, laughed, fought, forgiven, and feasted together at one another’s tables,’ the editors record. A particularly sharp fight must have been fought on the nature of the entries. The editors settled on a conservative dictionary of biography format with a leavening of category entries on such topics as ‘Pseudonyms’, ‘Black Feminist Criticism’, ‘Science Fiction’. There are no plot summaries, no entries on works or on principal characters in works, no cross-reference one-liners. The gaze is unblinkingly on women’s lives as the ground from which women’s writing springs.’


John Sutherland, 21 March 1991

There are many Roger Scrutons and it is not easy to reconcile them: barrister, aesthetician, champion of Senator Joseph McCarthy, teacher at Birkbeck College (an institution with a tradition of proletarian outreach), editor of the ultra-Tory Salisbury Review foxhunter. And novelist. Fortnight’s Anger (1981) was hard-going – a murky tale of adolescent sexuality full of sentences like: ‘Her hands trembled on his face and neck. Slowly the agony of appeasement wormed through him, and his grief, unlocked at last, crawled out and shook itself on the surface of his face.’ That is, he wept. Scruton’s second novel, Francesca, is less overdone in its writing – although it too deals with the toils of adolescence. The ten-year interval has usefully congealed some of the Scruton parts. His prejudices seem now to have permeated all the fibres of his mind and sensibility, like smoke into well-cured bacon. Everything he writes now seems thoroughly Scrutonised. One feels a sense of gratified expectation at the snide allusions to the New Statesman, the Guardian and ‘Dr Leavis’ on page one of Francesca. This is the Roger Scruton we know and love to hate – Britain’s favourite ‘token reactionary’, as he sometimes calls himself.’

Presidential Criticism

John Sutherland, 10 January 1991

There are up to ten thousand American academics who could claim the job description ‘literary critic’ as they make their way to the annual convention of the Modern Languages Association. J. Hillis Miller is one of the handful who matter. Like those mystic few who know the Coca Cola formula, such people shouldn’t be allowed to travel on the same plane. The collective loss would be irreparable. Harvester Press salutes Miller with a three-volume retrospective of his incidental essays. His pieces on Victorian and modern literature are published now. The theoretical essays will come out next May.

Nelly gets her due

John Sutherland, 8 November 1990

‘I don’t handle divorce business.’ In general, scholarly investigators should follow Philip Marlowe’s rule. One feels degraded when Dickens’s private letters are subjected to infra-red photographic analysis (as they were in the 1950s). Beneath the crossings-out are references to Ellen Ternan, his mistress – or perhaps not his mistress. It is only by chance that any incriminating letters survive: Dickens’s son Henry and Ellen Ternan’s son Geoffrey Robinson destroyed all such correspondence. Dickens himself burned any personal letters that he could come by. He also destroyed his diaries at the end of every year. One diary – that for 1867 – was lost or, more likely, stolen in America. It resurfaced in 1943. ‘Since then,’ as Claire Tomalin puts it, ‘scholars have been squeezing it like a tiny sponge for every drop of information it can yield.’ Scholars justify their curiosity on the grounds that anything which throws light on Dickens’s art is justified, however faint that light may be. But it looks very like keyhole-peeping. One of Tomalin’s achievements is that she investigates the private recesses of Dickens’s life without prurience and without making the reader feel prurient. One comes away with a sense that justice has at last been done.’

Devouring the pangolin

John Sutherland, 25 October 1990

Robert Darnton’s reputation was founded on his monumental The Business of Enlightenment (1979). In this study of ‘the life-cycle of a single book’ Darnton tracked the creation, manufacture, distribution and reception of the fourth edition of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, 1775-1800. His account drew on the archive of the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel, on the Franco-Swiss border. Using this material with great skill, Darnton was able to narrate what was involved in making and importing (sometimes smuggling) a subversive book into France in the Revolutionary era. He expertly digested the technicalities of the 18th-century printing trade, the historical-political background, and summarised a wealth of information into graph and tabular form. What kept the book from the fatal dryness of most economic history was the author’s gift for animating detail. At every point, Darnton seemed able to extract a human interest angle from his manuscript sources. He had, as reviewers noted, a novelist’s eye and a novelist’s power of evocation. Noting the prim engravings of the printing shop to be found in the Encyclopédie itself, Darnton observed that

A Terrible Bad Cold

John Sutherland, 27 September 1990

In the manner of old Hollywood movies, biographies like to open at a terminal point and then flash back to the start of things. It is a device that stakes out the territory while creating a sense of overall shape – something that even famous lives lack in the day-to-day business of living. Fred Kaplan’s 1988 life of Dickens began with the vivid scene of his incinerating ‘every letter he owned not on a business matter’ in a bonfire at his Gad’s Hill garden. What Kaplan ruefully implied by opening with the manuscript holocaust of 1860 was that there was a core of Dickens’s life which we would never know. Dickens laboured tirelessly to make himself publicly famous and at the same time to bury the private Dickens beyond all exhumation. He largely succeeded thanks to his own vandalism and Forster’s loyal destructions and suppressions. We may speculate, but we will never know the inner Dickens which those burned papers would have revealed. The biographer must remain for ever fenced-off.’

Downhill Racer

John Sutherland, 16 August 1990

Lying together marks the end (one hopes) of a sequence of novels D.M. Thomas began in 1983 with Ararat. Now called in its entirety ‘Russian Nights’, the sequence has been a fluid thing. At various points Thomas projected a trilogy and a quartet. In the event, ‘Russian Nights’ has turned out to be five novels long. Five novels too long, some might say. Thomas admits in his preface that ‘I kept changing my mind about whether the work was finished. I should have realised that an author does not decide this; the work itself decides, by suddenly letting go – as it has now done.’’


John Sutherland, 14 June 1990

Deference to royalty in this country is enforced by a judicial and popular savagery which is always there but only occasionally glimpsed. The glimpses are instructive. In 1937 the diplomat Geoffrey Dennis wrote a Coronation Commentary for Heinemann. This was a reasoned defence of the monarchy – then in a very rocky state. Dennis repeated, and deprecated, the widespread gossip that Mrs Simpson had been the Duke of Windsor’s mistress before marriage and that England’s recently abdicated king sometimes drank too much. A writ was served and the action heard before the Lord Chief Justice, who declared in court that ‘these particular libels, a jury might think, appear almost to invite a thoroughly efficient horse-whipping.’ Author and publisher escaped the lash and merely had to pulp their book and pay huge damages. The episode served notice on the book trade to tread very carefully in matters royal, which they duly did.’

In March 1889 Edward Arber applied for the vacant chair of English Literature and Language at University College London. Arber’s career had been unusual. He began his working life at 17 as an Admiralty clerk, but was excited by Henry Morley’s extension lectures into spending all his spare time on the study of English literature. At the age of 42 he left the Civil Service, where he felt his life was being wasted, to take up his first academic post, a lectureship under Morley at UCL. Modelling himself on his indefatigable head of department, Arber soon made up for his late start. In 1881 he was appointed Professor of English at Mason College Birmingham – Birmingham University, as it was to become.’

New Ground for the Book Trade

John Sutherland, 28 September 1989

The British book trade is experiencing change more drastic than anything it has undergone since the 1890s. What is happening – something that can loosely be called deregulation – will undo the controls on free trade that were installed in the 1890s by the then newly-formed publishers’ and booksellers’ associations. This dismantling appears as three trends, each...

Shakespeare the Novelist

John Sutherland, 28 September 1989

According to news reports, Peru is crumbling fast. The unfortunate country’s latest – and possibly terminal – woes began in 1980, after 12 years of military junta, with the installation of civilian rule under President Bealunde Terry. It was a false dawn. Since then, Peru has been afflicted by the hemispheric curses of debt-driven inflation and insurgency. But the violence which is currently destroying Peru is all its own and quite different from narco-terrorism in Columbia, CIA-Contra terrorism in Nicaragua, strong-man terrorism in Panama, or the urban guerrilla terrorism of the Tupamaros. Peru is under siege from a wholly anachronistic but apparently invincible Maoist revolutionary army, Sendero Luminoso – Shining Path. This purist faction sees itself in conflict with the ‘parliamentary cretins’ of the Peruvian Centre-Left (who have had the lion’s share of power in the post-junta years) and the revisionist ‘dogs’ of Moscow, Albania, Cuba and – above all – China as it has backslidden under Deng Xiaoping. The Senderistas own no allies, hold dialogue with no one. According to Nicholas Shakespeare, they accept no funds from abroad and their weapons of choice are stolen guns and hand-made beer-can bombs hurled from slings made of llama hair. Theirs will be one revolution without the AK-47.’

Jack and Leo

John Sutherland, 27 July 1989

Jack London has had difficulty emerging from the blur of his own heroic lies, his family’s whitewash, and the libels of his biographers. All accounts agree, however, that London’s was as mythic an American life as anything in Horatio Alger. Raised in grinding poverty, by the age of ten young Jack was up at three in the morning delivering newspapers to support his family. An autodidact, he mainly educated himself with books borrowed by the armful from Oakland Public Library. He left school at 14 to become a freebooting oyster pirate in the shallows off San Francisco. On his 17th birthday, Jack went to sea in a sealing schooner (the original of Wolf Larson’s hell-ship, the Ghost). He returned to enlist as one of Jacob S. Coxey’s army of unemployed in its protest march on Washington. Still not 20, he hoboed all round North America, spent some time in jail and returned to enrol at Berkeley. He dropped out after a semester to dig for gold in the Yukon. He was back in Oakland a year later, broke, scurvy-ridden and – at 21 – determined to be a writer. Within ten years, he was the highest paid writer in America. By 1910, he owned a thousand-acre ranch in the Sonoma Valley where he died, aged only 40, of what was entered on the death certificate as ‘uremia’.’

Facts Schmacts

John Sutherland, 16 February 1989

Authors can be terrible liars, and never more so than when they are in the autobiographical vein. Like salesmen, they are at their most dangerous when most sincere. Roth’s publishers trumpet The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography as the facts, a novelist’s autobiography – ‘Roth and his battles, defictionalised and unadorned’. It’s the more suspicious since Roth’s previous writings have played ducks and drakes with factuality and fictionality. He specialises in ‘I’ narration, with its easy slippage into straight authorial address. He has used his childhood in Weequahic so often that even though I have never been to Newark NJ, I feel I know its pre-war streets as well as I know the Bull at Ambridge. The funniest thing Roth has written by way of explication of his fiction is that ‘the personal element is there’ – an understatement that ranks with ‘I may be gone for some time.’’

Unhappy Childhoods

John Sutherland, 2 February 1989

Stephen Wall sees as crucial those passages in An Autobiography where Trollope rhapsodises on his equality with the personages of his fiction: ‘There is a gallery of them, and of all in that gallery I may say that I know the tone of voice, and the colour of the hair, every flame of the eye, and the clothes they wear. Of each man I could assert whether he would have said these or the other words; of every woman, whether she would then have smiled or so have frowned.’ These Trollopian people did not dissolve with the end of their novels and novel sequences. After the narrative had done with them, they were like friends who go to live in another town: no less solid because out of view. A character like Plantagenet Palliser ducks in and out of novels for the best part of two decades, evolving between his appearances from odious young prig to noble old man. Like wine in the cellar, he was maturing, even when we couldn’t see him. The author, Trollope claimed in another rhapsody, must be prepared to argue with his characters, ‘quarrel with them, forgive them, and even submit to them’. Trollope, not to put too fine a point on it, verges on the crazy in his insistence that his characters ‘live’. One would like to think it a foible – Pirandelloish game-playing. But he goes on about it at such length that we have in the end to believe that Plantagenet Palliser, Glencora, Lizzie Eustace, Madame Max, Phineas Finn and all the rest of the gallery were as real to him as Joan of Arc’s voices, Blake’s angels or Elwood P. Dowd’s giant white rabbit, Harvey.’

Reading Cure

John Sutherland, 10 November 1988

The Wellesley Index originated in its founding editor Walter Houghton’s The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870 (1957), a manual which was influential among students of the Sixties. Houghton’s book took as its starting-point the fact of a collective Victorian mentality – a kind of public overmind. Although this Victorian mind might contain oppositions within itself (the so-called ‘Victorian debate’), it was nevertheless governed by structures of thought which, if not consensual, were in the largest sense rational and intellectual – a set of ideas articulated by a clerisy. Houghton’s book broke the Victorian mind down into its constituent parts, or ideas, under such headings as ‘Optimism’. ‘Anxiety’, ‘Hero Worship’, ‘Hypocrisy’. The dominant ideas were principally extracted from the pontifical utterances of ‘sages’, in John Holloway’s expression, like Carlyle, Mill, Ruskin, Bagehot, Froude, Huxley, Morley, Arnold.’

End of the Century

John Sutherland, 13 October 1988

It would be interesting to place Jay McInerney and David Holbrook as neighbours at E.M. Forster’s imaginary table. Both novelists are fascinated by decadence – that much they have in common. But their diagnoses and anatomies of the decadent condition are quite different; worlds apart, to use Holbrook’s dominant image. For him, the present rot can be traced directly to the 1960s: specifically to Richard Neville’s Play Power, with its demonic slogan ‘the weapons of revolution are obscenity, blasphemy and drugs.’ Holbrook still sees that era – which began with the 1960 Lady Chatterley acquittal and ended with the Gay News prosecution in 1976 – as England’s dark age. ‘Permissive’ and ‘alternative’ remain the dirtiest words in his lexicon; his black beast is dressed in soiled denim, ornamented with hand-crafted jewellery, has long, unkempt hair, chants ‘we shall overcome,’ or ‘Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?’ and trails a ‘sickly haze of pot smoke’. The fact that hippies are – like the superannuated Neil in The Young Ones – no longer the force they were does not pacify Holbrook. The poison is still coursing deep in England’s veins.’


John Sutherland, 15 September 1988

According to Gordon Ray, writing in 1956, all that posterity could reasonably expect to know about the elusive Wilkie Collins was his name and dates of birth and death. This has proved to be an exaggeration. Thanks to Kenneth Robinson (whose revised Wilkie Collins, A Biography came out in 1974) and now, preeminently, to William Clarke, we now know much more – especially about Collins’s family affairs, or scandals, as they would have seemed to his contemporaries. As its title suggests, The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins is sensational stuff, both in the Victorian and modern senses of ‘sensation’. But what kind of insight does a ‘secret life’ give us, and why do we want this kind of book so urgently? More urgently than we want the bulk of Collins’s thirty or so novels, most of which are out of print and destined to stay so. Why does public demand commission ‘unauthorised’ biographies, designed to crash the barriers which authors erect around their private lives?’

Flights from the Asylum

John Sutherland, 1 September 1988

Michael Moorcock’s novel honours the loonies of London. It seems there are more of them every year, especially since – by one of the more perverse acts of enlightenment – the asylums were emptied in the Seventies. One sees the London mad everywhere in the streets and parks: ranters, mutterers, arm-wavers. The quieter cases are charitably allowed into the public bars of seedy pubs; I once saw one huddled over his light ale with an antique mahogany-cased ECT apparatus perched beside him. It was, presumably, some kind of survivor’s trophy. Only tourists are frightened by these urban mad; respectable citizens good-naturedly ignore them as being of no more account than pigeons and as inscrutable as gang graffiti. In New York and Los Angeles (where they parody the consumer-mad host society by heaping their possessions in supermarket trollies), they are called the ‘homeless’. There is, as far as I know, no generic English name. Moorcock calls them ‘ordinary Londoners’.’


John Sutherland, 21 April 1988

Stephen King has occasionally raised a rueful protest against being typed as a horror writer – even with the consolation of being the best-selling horror writer in the history of the world. But, as he disarmingly reminds us, there is worse literary company than Love-craft, Leiber, Bloch, Matheson and Jackson. ‘I could, for example, be an “important” writer like Joseph Heller and publish a novel every seven years or so, or a “brilliant” writer like John Gardner and write obscure books for bright academics who eat macrobiotic foods and drive old Saabs with faded but still legible GENE McCARTHY FOR PRESIDENT stickers on the rear bumpers.’ Instead of which he is the ‘King of Horror’ who had his face on Time, 6 October 1986 (the only author in that year to receive the honour), who sold over 1.2m American hardback copies of It (1986-87’s best-selling novel, and a personal best for King) and who now rates $3m advances. He cries, in other words, all the way to the bank. Or, as he puts it, ‘I don’t give a shit what they call me, so long as I can sleep at night.’

Big Bad Wolfe

John Sutherland, 18 February 1988

Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities is his 11th book but his first novel. Happily for him, it looks like being that publisher’s dream, a runaway best-seller which is also critically acclaimed. But I guess it will not, at the end of the day, be as highly ranked as the author’s new journalism (Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers), his polemics on aesthetics (From Bauhaus to Our House) or his American epic docufiction (The Right Stuff). One sees less a new career in The Bonfire of the Vanities than a sharp detour in a career which has already proved the most unpredictable in modern literature.

French Air

John Sutherland, 12 November 1987

In his autobiographical papers, Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman?, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman, describes being piqued by an article in Science about how well bloodhounds can smell. Feynman hates not being best, and so he took time off from inventing the atom bomb (he was working at Los Alamos) to run an experiment. He had his wife handle certain coke bottles in an empty six-pack while he was out of the room for a couple of minutes. Detection proved too easy: ‘As soon as you put the bottle near your face, you could smell it was dampish and warmer.’ So he had Mrs Feynman take down a book and replace it on the shelf:

Martin Chuzzlewig

John Sutherland, 15 October 1987

Dickens’s magical power over his readers has frequently expressed itself in cult objects. For Victorians, the most widely reproduced was probably Luke Fildes’s elegiac picture, The Empty Chair. This image of the vacant authorial throne conveys a sense that there can be no successor to Dickens. Together with the irreparable loss, Fildes’s confident entry into the sanctum sanctorum, the study in the chalet at Gad’s Hill, confirmed the delusive intimacy which reading publics yearn to be reassured they enjoy with their idols. We were close to him, and he is gone, the painting says.

World’s End

John Sutherland, 1 October 1987

After the autobiographical candour of Empire of the Sun, J.G. Ballard returns to his familiar austere impersonality with The Day of Creation. Superficially, this latest terminal vision recalls the doomed worlds of the author’s earlier Science Fiction, and at some points seems a close reworking of The Drought (1965). In that parched novel, the earth has ceased to produce rain because of radioactive waste and its waters are drying to produce a global dustbowl. In the last twenty years the inexorable advance of the Sahara has spared Ballard from having to invent his climatic catastrophe and gives his 1987 apocalyptic fable a more ominous edge of realism.

Cromwell’s Coven

John Sutherland, 4 June 1987

In an essay on the death of Macaulay, Thackeray wrote movingly about the British Museum Reading Room, where the historian had done his great work:

Very Nasty

John Sutherland, 21 May 1987

Field’s VN: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov is a biography which can make one wonder what biography is all about. On the face of it, the book marks the end of a tempestuous literary love affair. As his publishers proclaim, Field has devoted his professional life to the study of Nabokov. His first book, Nabokov: His Life in Art (1967) stands as a landmark in its subject’s emergence from literary obscurity to literary respectability. Celebrity had already come with Lolita, published in Paris in 1955. Field was the first critic conscientiously to excavate Nabokov’s sizeable corpus of early work in Russian, most of it published obscurely in pre-war Europe. His eulogistic assessment of Nabokov’s art was couched in a pseudo-Nabokovian jauntiness that put most reviewers’ backs up but could be taken as the sincerest form of flattery. Field ended his survey with a fanfare for the imminent Ada (1969), a work which he confidently predicted would crown Nabokov’s amazingly diverse career.

Big Head

John Sutherland, 23 April 1987

Catherine Peters’s cosmically titled book is a popular biography. It is also the third popular biography of Thackeray we have had in the last nine years, taking its place alongside Anne Monsarrat’s Thackeray: Uneasy Victorian (1980) and Margaret Forster’s sprightly ‘autobiography’, Thackeray: Memoirs of a Victorian Gentleman (1978). (Rather meanly, Peters leaves both competitors out of her ‘Select Bibliography’.) All three are, self-confessedly, dwarfed by the late Gordon Ray’s authoritative two-volume biography, Thackeray, The Uses of Adversity (1955) and Thackeray, The Age of Wisdom (1958).

Poets and Pretenders

John Sutherland, 2 April 1987

James Atlas’s The Great Pretender is a first novel. But Atlas has some prior fame as the author of a powerful biography of Delmore Schwartz, America’s poète maudit who died tragically unfulfilled in 1966, having lived out the truth of one of his best essays: ‘The Isolation of the Modern Poet’. The Great Pretender tells the story of a tyro versifier, who comes to artistic consciousness around 1966 in Chicago and who hilariously fails to attain any subsequent artistic fulfilment. Not to force connections, both Atlas’s sombre biography and his current comic novel address the complex issue of the modern poetic career. It is, as it happens, a hot topic among literary critics at the moment, particularly the so-called ‘new historicists’. Lawrence Lipking’s The Life of the Poet: Beginning and Ending Poetic Careers (1981), for instance, elegantly demonstrates how ‘the idea of the poet’ framed literary lives from Keats onwards. Richard Helgerson’s Self-Crowned Laureates (1983) does the same for the English Renaissance.

Fiction and the Poverty of Theory

John Sutherland, 20 November 1986

A drunken American historian once lurched over to David Caute at a party and told him: ‘Having read your last novel, or part of it, I’d advise you to give up writing fiction – if you weren’t such a lousy historian.’ Caute, a connoisseur of masochism, tells the story against himself (in Contemporary Novelists, 1976). The insult was unfair on a number of counts. Not least because it assumed that Caute the historian and Caute the novelist were divisible. One of the author’s more quixotic aspirations in his varied literary career has been to make a genuinely historical – or, as he used to call it in his Anti-University days, ‘radical’ – novel: that is to say, fiction which will not just understand the world, but change it. (On the good Brechtian theory of erst fressen, Caute has also written money-spinning soft-porn thrillers as ‘John Salisbury’.)’

Howard’s End

John Sutherland, 18 September 1986

Howard Jacobson began writing novels late in life. As he tells it, the life was nothing much to write about. He was born in Manchester in 1942. His family was Jewish with a modest upward mobility track leading from Salford to Whitefield via Prestwich. The Jacobsons evidently made it to Prestwich. The young Howard went to grammar school and read English at Cambridge. His subsequent academic career started at Selwyn College, diverted to Sydney University and ended, fifteen years on, at Wolverhampton Polytechnic: a downward mobility which Jacobson seems to have seen as a fit destiny for such as him. Feeling critically middle-aged, he wrote and published at the age of 41 his first novel, Coming from behind (1983). The book caught on slowly but had a notable word-of-mouth popularity, particularly in paperback (where it now sells in its fourth edition). Since then, Jacobson’s career has been expertly promoted by his agents and various publishers. His second novel, Peeping Tom (1984), was well received – both here and in America, which is a notoriously hard market for the English comic novelist to crack. (Changing Places and Stanley’s Women, two of the funniest novels ever written, were initially turned down by a series of US publishers.) And with Redback, his third offering, Jacobson can almost carry off his publisher’s assertion that he is ‘the most devastatingly funny novelist writing in English today’.’

Fuentes the Memorious

John Sutherland, 19 June 1986

Carlos Fuentes is one of those unusual novelists who would make the International Who’s Who even if he had never written a novel. As a public man, Fuentes’s career has been directed to Mexico’s uneasy relationship with the outside world – he was Mexican Ambassador to France from 1975 to 1977. As a novelist, he explores the internal character of his country, in Where the air is clear, his first novel, originally published in 1958, in The Death of Artemio Cruz and in Terra Nostra. His novels feel their way along the paradoxes and social contradictions of Mexico: the complicated assimilations of its Indian, Spanish, French and North American legacies, its two natures as a state founded in socialist revolution yet effectively governed by feudal gangsters, or jefes. Mexico is a country where, as the sardonic proverb has it, ‘the law is obeyed, then it is disregarded.’ Eccentricity is written into a constitution which awards every citizen an inalienable 50 hectares of land, but very prudently does not specify where the land is. Fuentes sees Mexico as the site of two great and conflicting American myths: the myth of epic conquest, and the myth of a pre-existent utopia. And for Fuentes, Mexico is a country whose strangeness defies and yet can only be understood by the imaginations of fiction. Hence every worthwhile Mexican novel must, directly or indirectly, be a historical novel, a novel about ‘our land’.’

Carré on spying

John Sutherland, 3 April 1986

John le Carré has patiently established himself over the last twenty-five years as the discriminating reader’s favourite thriller writer. The BBC’s adaptations of the George Smiley trilogy in 1979 and 1982 made him almost overnight a popular author on the Ian Fleming scale, and it can have done no harm that the TV version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy coincided with the Blunt scandal. Now, as a rite of academic canonisation, three critical monographs have been published which respectfully analyse his fiction.

Edgar and Emma

John Sutherland, 20 February 1986

I take the following details from Current Biography, July 1976. Edgar L. Doctorow was born in New York City on 6 January 1931 to David R. and Rose Doctorow, whom he has described as ‘old-fashioned social democrats’. His grandparents on both sides were Jewish immigrants from Russia. Doctorow grew up on Eastburn Avenue, in the Bronx. His mother was a pianist and his father had a store in the old Hippodrome building that sold musical instruments, radios and records. According to Doctorow, there was never any money, and his father would have to be considered a ‘failed man’. Nevertheless, he retains pleasant memories of his childhood.

Carrying on with a foreign woman

John Sutherland, 7 November 1985

Kurt Vonnegut’s new novel finds him on old ground. All his hallmarks are prominently here: the cute narrative manner belying an apocalyptic message (the end of the world is once again nigh); the little ‘so it goes’ tics of style (here an asterisk placed before the names of characters about to die); comic-scientific periphrasis (marriage is ‘biologically significant copulation’). It’s as if, having labelled himself a boring old fart, as he did in the prologue to Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut had now decided to play the part for all it’s worth. Fortunately, the old fart’s bag of tricks still amuses. But I think I would have liked this novel more had it been the first of the author’s that I’d read.

No 1 Writer

John Sutherland, 5 September 1985

Genre fiction is as competitive as prizefighting. The current champion of thriller writers in America is Elmore ‘Dutch’ Leonard. With the imminent release of the film Stick (a much-hyped but somewhat limp adaptation directed by and starring Burt Reynolds) he should make number one here, too. Leonard’s eminence ties in with the emergence of Miami as the new crime fashion centre of the United States. Styles have changed. Chicago was speakeasies and gangs; Las Vegas high-rolling casinos; New York, the five Mafia families. Miami crime has no roots in long-standing urban deprivation, minority ethnic solidarity, or the anomalies of state gambling laws. It was created by a series of rapid influxes of people, capital and contraband all cooked in the Sun Belt’s year-round summer. First came the monied retirees, who triggered off the real-estate boom (this is the background to John D. MacDonald’s underrated Condominium). Secondly, the mind-boggling sums of money generated by middle-class America’s insatiable appetite for prohibited cocaine. Thirdly, the invasion by criminal classes educated in villainy outside the US – in Cuba, Haiti and Colombia. Fidel Castro’s exporting his entire population of moral incorrigibles from Mariel in 1980 topped off the anti-social mixture nicely.’

Must they twinkle?

John Sutherland, 1 August 1985

The volumes of the British Literary Magazines series (three out of four of which have now been published) are primarily works of ready reference. Alphabetically arranged within historical period, entries supply brief profiles of around four hundred ‘representative’ journals, together with some bare-bones factual data. The coverage is wider (but less full) than the 48 titles covered by the Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals; less wide (but fuller) than the Waterloo Directory of Victorian Periodicals which heroically aims (one day) to bring all the age’s thirty thousand journals under bibliographic control. Although its range extends from Augustan to Modern, the BLM project shares with these other catalogues a central interest in the 19th century, and marks another forward leap in charting what Michael Wolff twenty years ago called the ‘golden stream’ of Victorian periodical writing.

Shuffling off

John Sutherland, 18 April 1985

The Victorian novelists are commonly supposed to have been soft on the subject of death: ‘one would need a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell’ is the best-known of literary criticisms. In fact, succeeding generations, while following Wilde’s sneering direction, have generally misread or skipped the protracted death-scenes that multiply in Victorian fiction. If they do not amuse or embarrass, Colonel Newcome’s weepy ‘Adsum,’ the Tullivers’ ‘In death they were not divided,’ Jo’s creaking cart, or Father Time’s ‘Done because we are too menny’ are decently ignored as forgivable lapses.

Red Stars

John Sutherland, 6 December 1984

Yevtushenko’s face, more cadaverous by the year, stares morosely from the flap of Wild Berries. The camera has evidently caught him thinking of his native Taiga, the Siberian tundra which forms the idyllic background to the novel. In fact, the background of Wild Berries, which is not the best ordered of narratives, rather usurps the foreground, and for much of its length the novel reads like over-the-top Intourist travel literature, aimed at rehabilitating a region associated in the foreign mind (at least) with exile, sub-zero temperatures and days in the life of Soviet dissidents. A Siberian snow job, one might call it.

The Great Exhibition

John Sutherland, 6 September 1984

A prefatory note testifies that Empire of the Sun draws on its author’s observations as a young boy swept up by the Japanese capture of Shanghai, and his subsequent internment in Lunghua airfield camp, outside the city. James Ballard’s narrative, pitched ambiguously between autobiography and fiction, records the lost childhood of a lad variously nicknamed Jim and Jamie. (As far as I can see, the surname is never given – but it’s not hard to supply: J.G. Ballard, incidentally, never uses his Christian name authorially.) We are clearly invited to locate the traumatic source of Ballard’s creativity in an awful primal experience, here relived under artistic discipline.–


John Sutherland, 7 June 1984

Burroughs’s latest book arrives with the simultaneous news of Alexander Trocchi’s death. For one who used heroin for its literary stimulus, Trocchi did well to last to 59. Burroughs, whose substance abuse has been even more notorious, is now 70. A Grand Old Junky. An aroma of Establishment dignity now attaches to him. In the early Sixties, Henry Brooke, the Home Secretary, saw fit to deny him a visa to stay in Britain. He was undesirable. The TLS did all in its power to keep Naked Lunch from publication, proscribing it as ‘vomit’. Nevertheless, helped by a determined defence from its British publisher, John Calder (who claimed to discern in Burroughs the James Joyce of our day), Naked Lunch went on to become a terrific post-Chatterley best-seller. The Place of Dead Roads is published with a grant from the Arts Council: a double seal of Establishment approval and minority sales prospects. In a manner of speaking, Burroughs has finally arrived.

Star Warrior

John Sutherland, 6 October 1983

George Lucas is the most money-successful film-maker there has ever been. Of the eight films he has directed or produced (he eludes the conventional Hollywood division of labour), Star Wars and The empire strikes back have sold getting on for $900m worth of tickets. C-3PO and R2-D2 are as well known as Pope John Paul or Mickey Mouse. Lucas’s second movie and first hit, American Graffiti (produced by Francis Coppola, conceived and directed by Lucas), was the most profitable investment in Hollywood history: it brought in $117m against a production cost of $750,000. Raiders of the Lost Ark (conceived and produced by Lucas, directed by Steven Spielberg) has taken $335m at the box-office (production cost $22.8m) and looks set to run in first-release theatres for as long as The Sound of Music. Lucasfilm Inc., the merchandising branch of Lucas’s empire, has turned over some $2bn from leasing out trademark-protected imagery. Darth Vader popsicles and Princess Leia knickers have contributed to Lucas’s personal fortune, currently estimated at $60m. The Return of the Jedi, which concludes the middle trilogy of the Star Wars sequence (the narrative order of the epic baffles me), broke records when it opened in America earlier this year. Lucas has recently visited England – a country he detests, though much of his filming has had to be done here – to defend Jedi against the video pirates. Five thousand pounds seems a paltry price for him to have put on the head of the Hastings Han Solo who smuggled out the film’s master copy. But George has always been careful with money, however vast the sums he generates. Having made $30m by his 30th birthday, he treated himself to a used Ferrari. ‘I have,’ he confesses, ‘this simple-minded, small-town, conservative business attitude. I’m just like a small shopkeeper.’–

Poles Apart

John Sutherland, 5 May 1983

Glowacki’s novel makes trouble for itself. The work is translated – one of the two ways in which, notoriously, a British book can be guaranteed to lose money (the other sure thing is poetry). Give us this day was originally published in 1981, and was evidently completed before December and Jaruzelski’s imposition of martial law. Its saga of the uprising in the Gdansk Lenin shipyard ends with a cloudy optimism (‘It looks as if it’ll be all right after all’) which unforeseen events, not least the author’s subsequent exile, have sadly contradicted. Give us this day is presented as the historical witness of a hull-welder like Boxer in Animal Farm: dim to the verge of half-wittedness but – ultimately – the salt of the Polish earth. English readers will shrink from the biceps-flexing opening sentences: ‘Can’t complain. Built like an ox, I am. Productive. Efficient member of the workforce.’ Productive and efficient the steel-driving hero may be. Articulate narrator he is not. His solidity makes a point about Solidarity. His humble reflections on the upheaval around him may even be eloquent in his native Polish. But working-class vernacular must vie with poetry in making things awkward for translators. The hero, for instance, identifies the world around him by homely menagerie nicknames: his workmates are Sloniu the Elephant, Roundy, Swarthy, Foureyes, Skinny, Miskia the Bear, etc. Walesa (never named) is ‘walrus face’. One can see the slang equivalences which the translator (Konrad Brodzinski) is aiming at. But by the wildest stretch of the imagination, one can’t hear an assembly-line worker at Cowley or Dagenham fondly referring to his leader as, say, Moss the bullmoose. And it doesn’t help that Glowacki’s workers have such well-soaped mouths. I won’t believe that the great liberation at Gdansk was achieved without a single expletive, or any harder retort by the foiled management than: ‘Back to work, revisionist scum.’–

Publishing History has something of a Balkan status in this country’s universities. Bibliography, sociology, economic history periodically lay claim to it: none is prepared to grant it the dignity of a subject or area of study in its own right. In the past few years there were signs that publishing history might form itself into something coherent. There was the foundation of the learned journal, Publishing History, in 1977. Its publishers, Chadwyck Healey, embarked on a laudable, if sisyphean, programme of microfilming whole sets of publishers’ records. Meanwhile libraries – notably that of the University of Reading – systematically acquired and sorted publishers’ archives. But we still lack anything comparable to the German Archiv für Geschichte des Buchwesens. Nor does Britain have an equivalent to John Tebbel’s multivolume history of American publishing. The student of the subject in this country (particularly if he is interested in contemporary matters) will find himself dredging through the pages of more or less hagiographic ‘house histories’ and the nuts-and-bolts trade material to be found in the weekly columns of the Bookseller. Direct approaches to publishers and agents (though some are helpful) are commonly turned away. And, one suspects, many British publishers have simply junked their dead files.

Short is sharp

John Sutherland, 3 February 1983

The short story emerged as a major form in the 19th century, a by-product of the great Victorian periodical boom. Some years ago a pessimistic literary diagnosis assumed it would wither with its host – the non-specialist, general-interest magazine. Like the long poem, the short story would become a superseded species. But recently, things have boomed again. New careers (McEwan, Mac Laverty, Mars-Jones) have been founded on the short story. Other established writers have resourcefully played a two-handed game, writing full-length and short fiction turn and turn about. A learned journal has even been set up learnedly to study the form.

Dark Places

John Sutherland, 18 November 1982

With Wise Virgin, A.N. Wilson continues his bleak investigation of trauma. The Healing Art (his most acclaimed novel so far) scrutinised human sensibility under the sentence of terminal cancer. Wise Virgin takes the life term and solitary confinement of bereaved blindness. It’s played out with Wilson’s customary geometric neatness of design. Giles Fox, as the novel’s retrospect finds him, was once a fulfilled man – someone who could have represented the happy ending of some other story. He is a librarian and a scholar (his ‘period’ is ‘somewhere between 1213 and 1215’), and the best efforts of his intellectual maturity have been happily applied to editing a Medieval text, the ‘Tretis of Love Hevenliche’, a work eventually destined for the dusty glory of Early English Texts Society publication. It’s not my period, but despite some convincing quotation and an authenticating footnote, this work by ‘Robert of St Victor’ appears to be invented. (Readers of Wilson’s earlier novels will expect highly specialised pockets of expertise on church and university matters.) The treatise celebrates the anchoretic life: or the wisdom of virginity as the path to true marriage with Christ. For all his obsessed attention to his text, Fox had lived the life of its antitype. He was worldly, carnal and atheistic. Happily married, he was prone to flippancy about the ‘much over-rated joiner’s son’. Then, in the way of Wilson’s world, there fell on him a rain of shattering blows. His wife died in childbirth with her baby. He went blind. His second wife, a Moorfields nurse, was run down and killed by a hit-and-run driver (the miseries in Wilson’s narratives are invariably the acts of a God who may perhaps just be an insurance company fiction). Giles remained, a sightless scholar blundering uselessly in his library. As we encounter him, he is attended by two virgins: his luscious teenage daughter Tibba and his dowdy amanuensis, Miss Agar (PhD, failed). With all this wretchedness stacked behind it, the novel opens: ‘ “Marry me,” said Louise Agar.’ Will he?


John Sutherland, 19 August 1982

David Storey’s new novel begins with a brief prelude reminiscent of The Rainbow’s, tracing the historical mutations of a locality from its natural to its urban (here 1930s) condition. The theme of the novel has other evident similarities with Sons and Lovers. Both deal with the emergence of artistic talent from working-class fetters. But in the way that he has chosen to tell A Prodigal Child, Storey defies Lawrentian precedent. The novel suggests, rather, that he is aiming to synthesise his play and novel-writing practices. The marrow of the work is in its dialogue – a dialogue which is largely constrained by the terse naturalism of Yorkshire dialect or the limitations of refined middle-class speech.

Crusoe was a gentleman

John Sutherland, 1 July 1982

This year brings the centenary of Trollope’s death. On the whole, the anniversary has been taken calmly by his countrymen: with far less celebration than, for instance, George Eliot received in 1980. There is to be no British Library exhibition (although they hold significant manuscripts); no plaque in the Abbey (although Trollope was more devout than the other novelist); no portrait stamp, no commemorative pillar-box at Waltham Cross. Perhaps the Surtees Society will do something for ‘the novelist who hunted the fox’.


John Sutherland, 6 May 1982

A new novel by Günter Grass invites comparisons of a national kind. If a British writer of fiction wished to engage with the big stories of the day – the kind of thing Brian Walden does at Sunday noon – how would he go about it? Could Murdoch, Burgess, Spark, Lessing, Drabble take on such issues as the politics of fertility; the rights and wrongs of membership of Nato; the nuclear energy programme; whether in the absence of Brandt, and given the too urgent candidature of Strauss, Schmidt ought to be voted for; the division of Germany? Decorum, or the sense of a diminished literary tradition, would probably inhibit the representative British novelist. The only way he could smuggle front-page, first-leader material into a novel would be by the allegorical indirections of Science Fiction.


John Sutherland, 4 March 1982

The survivors are two Jewish families, the Katzes and the Gordons, fled from Odessa and settled in pre-First World War Liverpool. Within their ethnic class and shared past they are markedly different. The Gordons are adaptable and individualistic – sharp even against each other. The Katzes are a warmer, happier, less steady family. The Gordon gifted son makes himself a leading London publisher, wilfully disowning his origins. The Katz gifted son is a lame duck, unable to leave home. Benjy, the youngest Katz, has artistic talent, but he buries it for the service of the family. No Gordon would so waste himself.


John Sutherland, 21 January 1982

In his history of the genre, Brian Aldiss suggests that most SF is what he calls ‘prodromic’: we must read it less as a prophecy of the future than as symptomatic of the present. By this rule 1984 will be 36 years out of date when we get there. A commoner view (on which Aldiss is naturally not so keen) holds that SF, like the Western, is an exclusively American line of fiction in which dabbling Europeans can easily make fools of themselves. Both generalisations survive a reading of Brave Old World. Curval, it would seem, is the leader of French SF. This novel, entitled Cette Chère Humanité, won the Prix Apollo in 1976. In France, ‘Curval’s name is as well-known as Frank Herbert’s in America or Michael Moorcock’s in Britain.’

Young and Old

John Sutherland, 15 October 1981

The plural title of Life Stories is paradoxical. The short story – Barker’s preferred literary form – cannot comprehend anything as large as life. In the face of this paradox, she has devised a new kind of cycle. Instead of the traditional bonding of carried-over place or character, Barker has abstracted items from various stages of her writing career, beginning with the opening piece in her first collection, Innocents (1947). These are put together with an equal number of new stories. The sequence thus assembled traces a thematic development from the condition of childhood, through adolescence, to age. The collection is interspersed with brief autobiographical essays, reminiscing, in a very guarded way, about the relevant period of the author’s own life.

At the Gay Hussar

John Sutherland, 20 August 1981

At some point it must have crossed Braine’s mind to call his latest novel ‘Love at the Top’. The hero is Tim Harnforth, a 56-year-old best-selling novelist and man of letters. Originally from the West Riding, he is now one of the gens du monde, ‘a high-flyer, a metropolitan man’, literary-lioning it in London. Young admirers come up to him in pubs and say: ‘Mr Harnforth? Mr Tim Harnforth?’


John Sutherland, 4 June 1981

Tit for Tat is dispatched from the front line of the war between the sexes. The heroine Sadie (play on ‘sad’ and ‘sadist’) Thompson (play on Maugham’s unregenerate prostitute) is so comprehensively victimised that her only recourse is to victimise herself more shockingly than even her enemies can. And with her self-inflicted wounds she is supposed to win a kind of freedom.

Making strange

John Sutherland, 19 March 1981

Since Success, Martin Amis has been involved in a spectacular case of alleged plagiarism. As the apparently aggrieved author, Amis showed himself notably unresentful and unlitigious. Indeed, he took the offence as an occasion to ruminate good-naturedly on the oddities of literary ‘borrowing’. It’s relevant to bring this up since Other People depends very largely on a trick which is usually thought to be someone else’s trademark.

Masters of Art

John Sutherland, 18 December 1980

The jacket informs us that Loon Lake is ‘a novel by E.L. Doctorow Author of RAGTIME’. Ragtime must have been a hard act to follow. In its day (1975), it was the most highly paid-for novel ever. Doctorow had well over two million dollars in subsidiary-rights advances and a whole generation of readers were introduced by it to the meaning of the word ‘hype’. The receipts are still not all in (for instance, the long-postponed film is yet to come). But the ‘watershed publishing event’ – as Bantam Books hailed it – was a flop. Doctorow could have been forgiven for retiring into prosperous obscurity.

In Praise of Follett

John Sutherland, 16 October 1980

Of the novels under review here, Ken Follett’s will sell most. Over the last five years the author has assumed Forsyth’s fitfully-worn mantle and established himself as the world-wide super-seller. The Key to Rebecca will follow Eye of the Needle (1978) and Triple (1979) as a surefire triumph. He is now one of a select band of novelists – Forsyth, Maclean and Higgins are others – at the golden nucleus of the fiction industry. Welshman by origin, Follett is now cosmopolitan and corporate for business reasons. (I notice, incidentally, that The Key to Rebecca is © Fine Blend NV. Are the coffee people setting up against the sugar people who own the James Bond copyright?)


John Sutherland, 2 October 1980

In his essay on Nikolai Leskov, Walter Benjamin observes, almost in passing, that the novel inevitably brings about the end or storytelling. Like many of Benjamin’s paradoxes, this insight is very unsettling to the received idea – oh dear no, the novel doesn’t tell a story after all. Benjamin’s reasoning runs thus: the story (the only current example would be the dirty joke, I imagine) has no identifiable single author and is transmitted face to face. It rises from the common anonymous stock of oral recitation and intimate social exchanges. Unlike the novel, it is not immutably fixed in form: nor is it a negotiable commodity. Nor, to add to Benjamin’s distinction, does the story go round with a minatory © attached to it as does every novel.

Pseud’s Corner

John Sutherland, 17 July 1980

Every publication is required, by law I believe, to carry the printer’s name. No such rigorous obligation attaches to statements of authorship. It is a licence that fiction, in particular, has richly exploited. Ever since its rise the novel has flirted with authorial anonymity and pseudonymity. Great unknowns, pen names and spoof attributions figure centrally in the genre’s history, from Scott, to George Eliot, to Kilgore Trout.

Looking back

John Sutherland, 22 May 1980

The Victorian practice of antedating is enjoying a revival with contemporary English novelists. Every so often, it would seem, fiction becomes broody, retrospective, and responsive to Kierkegaard’s maxim that life is lived forwards but understood backwards. Different novelists, however, look back in different moods and at different primal events and seedtimes. For William Golding (Darkness Visible) the focus was the Blitz and the Second World War, which secreted the modern age’s poison as a bee secretes honey. In Angus Wilson’s latest work (Setting the World on Fire) the narrative hinges on the crucial Suez-Hungary year, 1956-57. Malcolm Bradbury – though he as yet has written no novel on the theme – has expounded at length his agreement that 1956 is the year in which Trillingesque liberal humanism went under to the new barbarism. A.S. Byatt (The Virgin in the Garden) found a slightly earlier epicentre in the Coronation year. 1953. David Lodge’s new novel (How far can you go?) charts Catholic perplexity in the face of the permissive Sixties, Humanae Vitae and the abolition of National Service.

Likeable People

John Sutherland, 15 May 1980

James Hepburn opens his history of literary agency – The Author’s Empty Purse, published in l968 – with the same quotation that Graham Watson uses to conclude his reminiscences of a lifetime spent in the profession:

House History

John Sutherland, 24 January 1980

The terms on which this book is set up are prefigured in the split title – Allen Lane: King Penguin. In Elizabethan drama the king’s two bodies might well be a theme for tragedy, and a latterday Lytton Strachey might have made much of the hypocritical discrepancies between public eminence and private person. J.E. Morpurgo has settled for ‘paradox’. His biography-cum-house-history evokes a constant sense of how odd it was that such a man should have produced such a thing.


John Sutherland, 8 November 1979

London now has an autumn season when the big fiction blockbusters are delivered to a public with longer evenings for reading and Christmas money to spend. It may not be anywhere near as clearly marked off as it is in New York and the launching machinery still creaks a bit, but its component parts are familiar from the smoother-running American model. Some six months before publication, fabulous, record-breaking deals and tie-ins are released to the trade and furnish paragraphs for the gossip columns. Background stories, authors’ profiles and studio portraits are sown in the national and provincial press during the run-up to publication day. With luck, Robert Robinson or a lesser TV person will be recruited to do a celebratory book programme. In addition to the traditional newspaper, shop-window and point-of-sale displays there will also be extensive coverage on commercial radio. This year, ‘biggest-ever’ advertising budgets have been divulged for the season’s biggest titles: £50,000, for example, for Hutchinson’s The Devil’s Alternative, a sum which they claim will finance the ‘greatest ever campaign for a hardback novel’; Secker and Warburg, a smaller house, have allocated £15,000 for the promotion of The Four Hundred. Authors’ tours, interviews and signing sessions are laid on. ‘Distinctive symbols’ are devised and publicised to fix the books in the public mind.



24 January 2008

It’s odd reading a favourable review of a novel in the same pages as one reviewed it, favourably, a quarter of a century earlier. Is The Book of Ebenezer Le Page (LRB, 24 January), as I suspect, the first to be double dipped in the LRB? If so, it shouldn’t be the last.

John Murray Archive

18 March 2004

John Sutherland writes: I apologise to Martyn Wade for the errors in my piece. Those which are unfit for publication in the LRB I ask him to send to me personally.On the ‘commission’ issue. I understand that Quaritch were acting as valuers for the NLS and not as agents for John Murray. I was misled by an article in the Guardian of 28 February, in which its arts correspondent described Quaritch...

Caro Amico

4 December 2003

John Sutherland writes: I am not sure what J.H. Stape’s points are, nor do I recognise the me he describes. He describes himself as the ‘co-editor (forthcoming) of The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad’. The founding and still serving editor of that series, Frederick R. Karl, is described by Stape as the author of a biography which discerning Conradians (excluding, presumably, Karl...
I am in favour of electronic databases. I do not accept, however, Ferdinand Mount’s proposition that the TLS full-text electronic archive, ‘shorn of all the fancy language’, is ‘simply yet another way of making back numbers more easily available’ (Letters, 18 March). The TLS database has been subjected to three new processes (electronic scanning, SGML mark-up and digital...

27 November 1997

Some errors have been pointed out to me in my article on (LRB, 27 November 1997): Barnes and Noble are not primarily a ‘mall chain’, and their subsidiary outlets are firm-owned not franchised. Also, Waterstone’s is a wholly-owned subsidiary of W.H. Smith – this invalidates a point I was making about civil war in the British book trade, and arose from my confusion...

Devil take the hindmost

14 December 1995

I respect the warmth of Michael Foot’s enthusiasm for H.G. Wells and admire the polemical vigour and wit of his letter (Letters, 4 January). But he has not engaged with the central point in my review. It was that Wells advocated concentration camps and/or mass sterilisation for categories of the population who, in a moderately liberal society, would scarcely merit probation. He put this forward...

The Annual MLA Disaster

16 December 1993

I found the last sentence of Catharine Stimpson’s letter (Letters, 10 February) mystifying. ‘I trust that Sutherland got carried away by his own polemic, not that he is carrying the banner of one faction or another,’ she writes. It may be that she suspects that I am a member of the MLA’s bête noire, the National Association of Scholars. I am not. Stimpson implies in her...
In a letter of 19 August 1993, in reply to a comment in a piece by me, the Chairman of the British Library Board, Sir Anthony Kenny, stated that it was a ‘sheer calumny’ to suggest that the Library was considering making readers pay for the privilege of reading: ‘the Board … has no intention of introducing charges for access to reading rooms.’ I felt at the time that...


11 July 1991

Robert Allen is right (Letters, 29 August) to call my version of recent Grenadian history in my review of The Feminist Companion to Literature in English bizarre. I apologise to the editors of the Companion and Merle Collins, and thank Mr Allen for his very clear and concise correction.

Molly Keane

15 October 1981

John Sutherland writes: I am grateful for Miss Athill’s corrections. Good Behaviour was physically produced in the US. It was published, and thoroughly reviewed, in America several weeks before it was available to British readers, having been published slightly earlier in Ireland. All of which would surely make us the third port of call in the successful passage of Molly Keane’s novel....


8 November 1979

John Sutherland writes: I will deal with the ignorant part of this letter first. In his expatriation on the Côte d’Azur it would seem that Mr Follett routinely turns to Dickens. Dickens apparently consoles the author of The Eye of the Needle in his intolerable wrestle with words and meanings because ‘Dickens wrote fast.’ Dickens didn’t write fast. Bleak House – a...

Like it or not, ‘Orwell’ is a brand: ordinariness, common decency, speaking plain truths to power, a haggard, prophetic gaze.

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Dinah Birch, 13 September 1990

‘No Arnold can write a novel; if they could, I should have done it.’ That was Matthew Arnold’s reaction to his niece’s first significant attempt at fiction, Miss...

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An Infinity of Novels

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