Zachary Leader

Zachary Leader has edited The Letters of Kingsley Amis, and plays tennis with Martin.

Colson Whitehead’s first novel, The Intuitionist (1999), won several prizes and extravagant praise from American critics. Whitehead is black and comparisons were made to Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed. John Updike has called him ‘blithely gifted’, ‘the young African-American writer to watch’. Whitehead’s new novel, John Henry Days, is longer...

No Accident: Gore Vidal’s Golden Age

Zachary Leader, 21 June 2001

‘Of course I like my country,’ Gore Vidal has written. ‘After all, I’m its current biographer.’ With the publication of The Golden Age, the biography draws to a close. The novels which comprise it, to list them in order of the historical periods they cover, are Burr (1973), Lincoln (1984), 1876 (1976, of course), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1989), Washington, DC...

Daisy packs her bags: The Road to West Egg

Zachary Leader, 21 September 2000

Once upon a time authors were believed to improve their work in revision. Then editorial theory fell in love with first versions, stigmatising second thoughts as impositions. The old dispensation, in which rejected drafts and variants were seen as false starts happily rectified on the road to a work’s final form, which was an incarnation of the author’s final intention, became ‘The Whig Interpretation of Literature’. This belittling tag, coined in a 1988 essay of the same name by Stephen Parrish, general editor of the monumental Cornell Wordsworth, reflected two more widespread beliefs in literary theory: that ‘language is prior to thought’ and that authorial intention is ‘not only elusive and illusory, but irrelevant’. In the case of the Cornell Wordsworth such beliefs were used to defend the publication of early versions as reading texts (a host of ‘yellow’ daffodils, for example; ‘golden’, a second thought, is relegated to the apparatus). The first versions, Parrish proclaimed, contained ‘the real Wordsworth, the early Wordsworth, generally the best Wordsworth’. Today, a third position is in ascendance. Editors, Parrish included, no longer talk of best and worst: instead, the equal validity of all versions is asserted. This third or pluralist position grows out of and reflects several recent developments: the triumph of history in the study of literature in universities, the much-heralded new dawn of hypertext, and a near universal reluctance on the part of literary academics to make judgments of value. Where exactly the publication of Trimalchio, an early version of The Great Gatsby, fits into this admittedly crude narrative, is no easy question.‘

800 Napkins, 47 Finger Bowls

Zachary Leader, 16 March 2000

Size matters – especially in business. In the quarter-century following the American Civil War, consolidation – in the form of trusts, mergers, monopolies, syndicates and cartels – transformed the US economy, revolutionising transport, communications and industrial production. The industrialists and financiers who shaped the new economy regarded its international ascendancy as natural and inevitable. To those who objected that consolidation inhibited free-market competition and local enterprise, depressed wages, produced inhumane living conditions for workers, and was anti-democratic, big money countered with claims of increased efficiency, radically reduced operating and distribution costs, falling consumer prices, greater social mobility and immense national wealth. These benefits it often extolled in moral or religious terms. Economic progress meant ‘discipline’, ‘sound’ money, ‘inviolate’ faith, as opposed to ‘waste’, ‘wild’ inflation, a ‘corrupt’ currency, ‘blind and dishonest frenzy’, ‘reckless booming anarchy’.’‘

Frognal Days: Files on the Fifties

Zachary Leader, 4 June 1998

Nora Sayre’s account of American intellectual life in the Fifties, part memoir, part documentary record, begins with her writer parents and the people she met in their living room in New York: Edmund Wilson, James Thurber, Walker Evans, James M. Cain, Nunnally Johnson, S.J. Perelman, Dawn Powell, Joseph Mitchell and John O’Hara. Many of these celebrated figures, artists and authors approaching fifty at the start of the decade or only lately past it, grew up in small provincial towns, emigrated to New York in the Jazz Age and worked together in the city rooms of the Herald Tribune and the New York World. Unlike their successors, writers who came or age in the Depression, or World War Two, or, like Sayre herself, in the Eisenhower years, her parents and their friends still lived ‘as though something wonderful would happen in the next twenty minutes’. Elegant, exuberant, unsnobbish (with the memorable exception of O’Hara, her godfather, who never again spoke to her after she admitted a preference for Harvard over Vassar: ‘His arm flew up and his wife Belle moved swiftly to restrain him’), Sayre’s parents and their circle made their children feel ‘colourless in comparison’.‘

What is at risk of being lost amid all the turkey stuffing is that Saul Bellow was a witty writer, as much a snappy dresser in prose as he was splashed out in his slick duds, a cool operator and crafty...

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Bad Character: Saul Bellow

Andrew O’Hagan, 21 May 2015

Bellow was in charge of whatever facts he chose to be interested in, and his genius, which can’t be doubted, outstripped anyone’s claim to possess their own story.

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Self-Positioning: the Movement

Stefan Collini, 25 June 2009

Craig Raine recalls that when the former chairman of Faber, Charles Monteith, encountered the suggestion that one of Philip Larkin’s poems was indebted to Théophile Gautier, he was...

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Do you think he didn’t know? Kingsley Amis

Stefan Collini, 14 December 2006

Giving offence has become an unfashionable sport, but Kingsley Amis belongs in its hall of fame, one of the all-time greats. When Roger Micheldene, the central character in his 1963 novel, One...

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During the half-century since 1950, Lindsay Duguid writes in an essay in this collection, ‘the lady novelist turned into the woman writer,’ the historical novel became respectable...

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When Philip Larkin first met Kingsley Amis at Oxford in the early 1940s, he was appalled, he later said, to find himself ‘for the first time in the presence of a talent greater than...

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Floating Hair v. Blue Pencil

Frank Kermode, 6 June 1996

The time is almost past when writers copiously provided the curious, concerned as much with process as with product, with drafts showing corrections by one or more hands and interestingly...

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Is writing bad for you?

Frank Kermode, 21 February 1991

Writer’s block must be thought of as a disease even more specific to a particular occupation than housemaid’s knee or weaver’s bottom. You can have those without being a...

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