SIR: Brigid Brophy’s review of Germaine Greer’s The Obstacle Race (LRB, 22 November) revealed a person much outraged by what she had read. Given that the book has a strong feminist base, is that a reason not to welcome it as casting light on one of the darkest areas of art history? In her obvious anger Ms Brophy sets up not a few obstacles herself at which I tried and then stumbled. For instance: ‘the convent was probably never “the only" alternative for women. There was being a servant. There was prostitution.’ Here I gasped and fell. Oh, what lucky ladies and what a delicious choice of professions. What, I ask myself, can Ms Brophy mean? She then goes on: ‘If she had the talent, it has been possible for a great deal longer than a hundred years for a woman to be an actress, a dancer or a singer.’
The connection between the actress and the prostitute – the two oldest professions – and the contradictions that this presents to women until present times would seem too obvious to comment on here. I gather up my skirts (such cumbersome things in an obstacle race) and read on. Ms Brophy then makes a comparison between female painters and female writers. She would do well to remember poor George Eliot. The price she paid for her independent mind was high indeed, since she lived most of her adult life as a social outcast. I would go on to suggest that there are no female literary figures comparable to a Tolstoi or Chekhov or Molière. Women’s experiences have been circumscribed, and consequently devoted almost entirely to the domestic or ‘inner’ life. The execution of so many of these fine works, written despite all obstacles, was often on the corner of a kitchen table or a front parlour at best. Lack of independent money meant that middle-class women could just about manage to procure pen and paper from the housekeeping, but as for paint and easels and a studio! Well!
Emotional hysterectomy is not the answer but was often the only choice left to a determined woman, and it must be severely damaging to the ego to accept that by refusing to give one’s life over almost entirely to the care of parent, husband or children, one was considered to have rejected one’s femaleness. This dilemma is almost as true today as it certainly was in the past. If we are to agree that Ms Greer is looking with one eye only, then let us at least have the honesty to admit that, where women artists are concerned, the world has turned a blind eye for too long.
SIR: Brigid Brophy’s review of Germaine Greer’s The Obstacle Race suffers itself from amblyopia. This is unimportant where it is attributable merely to divergent taste, however snidely expressed (‘if his taste ran to the work of Gwen John’; ‘the melodramatic Artemisia Gentileschi’ – painting when melodrama was central to contemporary aesthetics). What is serious is the dim-sightedness that can’t read a subtitle: the last page of the London Review of Books carries a full-page advertisement from Secker and Warburg headed by The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and their Work. One assumes that Miss Brophy’s review-copy had this on the title page, as other copies do. Dr Greer’s work does not, anywhere, aim or claim to be ‘a history of modern … western painting’.
In all areas of scholarship (and polemic) it is recognised that authors can choose to define their subjects by exclusion as well as inclusion: a reviewer wouldn’t earn much respect if s/he attacked a study of Frankenstein chiefly because it didn’t mention Byron constantly, or dismissed one about the works and lives of writers of the Great War for not discussing their mothers and wives.
Two other points. Miss Brophy jibs at Dr Greer’s comments on Rosa Bonheur/Anna Klumpke. On page 41 of the book it says: ‘Most often the truth that lies behind the mere mention of some well-known painter’s wife “who also painted" is of a lesser talent drawn into the vortex of an artist’s ego, and there seems no more point in lamenting the submergence of such women than one would seriously lament the fact that Nathalie Micas, who occasionally painted, spent most of her time and energy making a home for Rosa Bonheur.’ This gives the lie to Miss Brophy’s claim that the author applies a double standard to the biographies of male and female painters. Miss Brophy also regrets that ‘the reader is not allowed even to follow chronology.’ Chapters 8 to 16 run from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, and the book makes quite clear that its concern is recurrent patterns – biographical and aesthetic – which appear throughout different epochs, however local historical processes modify the surface appearance of these patterns. This may be ‘a problem about the nature of the arts’, as the reviewer claims. But the arts are social phenomena; women are part of the social structure; if the same things seem to happen to women painters in the 16th and the 19th centuries, while not happening to women writers, we are inevitably led to question commonplace views of ‘the nature of Women’, and their compatibility with the public practice of art. Dr Greer’s organisation of the material directs future scholars and historians to ways in which research might go about finding answers; and her text explicitly draws attention to the fact that painters are subject to public, economic pressures different from those affecting writers.
Brigid Brophy writes: Ms Aukin may dislike domestic service and opera singing as professions women could practise, but her dislike doesn’t magically lend truth to Ms Greer’s assertion that until 1879 they didn’t exist. Aphra Behn earned her living on her own in the 1660s and became well enough thought of to be buried in the Abbey. So Ms Greer’s claim that ‘until a hundred years ago’ a woman ‘could not simply set off to earn her fortune on her own’ is nonsense, and it remains nonsense no matter what Ms Aukin believes about George Eliot. Any embarrassment G. Eliot suffered came not from earning her living but from living unmarried with Lewes. Ms Aukin may suppose that her doing so demonstrates her ‘independent mind’. In fact, Lewes was not free to marry and G. Eliot called him her ‘husband’. By 1876, three years before Ms Greer believes a woman could even set off to try, G. Eliot had earned a small fortune, and she was not an outcast but a superstar. A random sample from Haight’s biography: on page 484 she dines with four lords and at least two ladies, is invited to meet the king of the Belgians and risks exhaustion from ‘lionising’. Ms Aukin fails to explain why the pen and paper some women used to create great literature were not used by others to create great drawings. Beardsley managed.
Ms Clifford has missed the point about the Greer one-eyed method. She presents lost oeuvres, lost identities, etc, as peculiarities of women painters, ignoring the fact that they are the commonplaces of art history and happened to hundreds of men painters, too (including Botticelli, who virtually vanished for three centuries). This is equivalent to a book that documents all the women in London who have had ’flu this autumn and then argues that ’flu is an illness to which only women are susceptible.
Is feminism so poor a cause that it has to promote itself by distorting history?
SIR: John Sutherland’s essay (LRB, 8 November) is foolish. The thrillers of Forsyth and Higgins are not ‘written,’ he says, as if that meant anything at all. What this complaint boils down to is that they are written fast. This is even less relevant than Forsyth’s shark-tooth pendant. Dickens wrote fast. Forsyth’s prose is not as good as Dickens’s, but this is not a question of writing speed. What is it a question of? Sutherland doesn’t say. I think he should.
But he admits he is at a loss for a context in which to consider supersellers. So are most critics. ‘They simply don’t fit the reviewer’s bench or his tools.’ Could it be that some blame attaches to the reviewer for this state of affairs? Is it right that the people on whom we rely for intelligent discussion of fiction should quiver impotently and rant about necklaces and film rights when confronted with the novels that most readers read?
There is a literary context within which best-selling thrillers might be assessed. The genre has a one-hundred-year history. Beginning with The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, its milestones include Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden, Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios, the early novels of Graham Greene and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Crime and Punishment might be discussed as a borderline case (and has been so discussed by Julian Symons). There might be argument about the primacy of The Moonstone: what about Bleak House, for example?
I imagine Sutherland would argue that The Devil’s Alternative won’t stand comparison with any of those books. In turn I should say that none of the novels reviewed in the same issue of the London Review of Books would stand such comparison.
If Sutherland thinks The Devil’s Alternative is rotten (and I bet he does, really) then he might subject it to the kind of hatchet job Ian Hamilton does on C.P. Snow on the very next page of your magazine. He might also bend his intellect to the following interesting question: just what is so damn good about Forsyth’s work that half the world is panting to read his next book?
Thrillers need not be reviewed generously. They might be approached with sympathy for their aims and awareness of their limitations: just the approach used toward the kind of straight novel of considerable skill and slight weight which is the reviewer’s regular fare.
Readers and writers need good critics. We want them to nail down exactly what makes one book so enchanting, to articulate what it was about another (or even the same) book that left us vaguely dissatisfied. I speak as a writer of best-selling, if not superselling, thrillers. Each day I strive for the apt words, I rack my brain for compelling imagery, I agonise over passages I know to be shallow, I go dizzy trying to keep clearly in mind the parallel development of interacting characters. I read Dickens to remind me how much better it can be done. Intelligent criticism is hard to come by.
We don’t need the publicity of a review in the London Review of Books. We don’t want Mr Sutherland to write about our clothes and our swimming-pools. We want him to consider what is good and what is bad about our books. We want criticism. Please.
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 novel in whose great tradition Follett would place himself and Forsyth – took over a year to write, as did all the major fiction. One instalment (a twentieth, that is) of Bleak House might occupy Dickens for as long as Forsyth needed to write the whole of The Day of the Jackal. There have been schools of ‘literary’ authors who advocated frenzied rates of composition, notably the ‘Beats’. But I don’t suppose that Mr Follett would derive any consolation from the fact that ‘Kerouac wrote fast.’ Mr Follett is falsely modest in claiming that he is only a second-league ‘best-seller’. His recent American triumphs have elevated him undeniably to the rank of ‘international superseller’. Since this is the case, his complaint about the critical invisibility of writers like himself carries weight. I’m all in favour of more, and more thoughtful, commentary on contemporary thrillers.
SIR: My deplorable ‘neutrality’ in respect of Jacques Lacan can be analysed (I don’t mean psychoanalysed) into a belief that he is both good and bad. Some parts of his writings I think are brilliant and mind-opening, other parts are beyond me. I cannot either idolatrise or dismiss him in the blandly integral way which Richard Webster (Letters, 6 December) very obviously prefers. I do not understand Lacan’s Ecrits (Mr Webster’s imputation), I do not not understand them. The Ecrits make a volume of some nine hundred pages; it would be absurd to apply to them criteria of comprehensibility appropriate to a single sentence. Rightly or wrongly, Lacan offers the Ecrits as a literary work and literary works above all should escape the form of semantic bigotry which Mr Webster displays.
His Lacan is one thing – ‘incomprehensible’ and that’s that, let’s hear no more about him. My Lacan is not one thing but plural; valuable, incomprehensible, impressive, maddening – the epithets pile up and can all of them be justified. They are not contradictory of one another when they are applied to a life’s work. Mr Webster would like the whole of Lacan’s work to be magically incorporated in the one word ‘Lacan’, and then to manipulate that word to the final disadvantage of the writer who bears it. Lacan himself, like other contemporary French thinkers, notably Barthes and Derrida, asks that we should give our attention to local, not to global instances of meaning and pleasure. Where is the virtue in getting to the end of Ecrits, scrawling the one word ‘incomprehensible’ across the cover and discarding it for ever? I hesitate to offend the editors of the London Review of Books and drag the word ‘deconstruction’ in, but it applies. Such proponents of a positively harmful simplification of intellectual issues as Mr Webster would do well to consider what a capacious term like ‘Lacan’ actually covers when they use it. It covers a body of writings to which Dr Lacan has put his name but with which, by his own – persuasive – account of verbal processes, it would be quite wrong to equate him, since the things that we write or say so far exceed our conscious intentions in writing or saying them. We have no business reducing authors to a single, perfectly coherent source of ideas the easier to ignore them once we have done so.
SIR: The answer to Mr Hardie (Letters, 6 December) is that for any given level of our own farmers’ real income the taxpayer would obtain a large direct benefit if Britain were not a member of the EEC. The point in the article to which Mr Hardie refers was that if sterling were to become very strong our own agriculture could, under EEC rules, be ruined, and we would have no power to prevent this, although we would still have to pay large net transfers to the EEC Budget. As non-members, the Government could always ruin British farmers if it chose to, but at least it would not have to subsidise foreign farmers while doing so. In practice I take it as axiomatic that the Government will, for a variety of reasons, wish to keep the British farming industry in existence, and that this is a very proper use of its tax revenue. My contention (to reiterate) has been that there is no justification for using tax revenue for the support of foreign agriculture as well.
Department of Applied Economics, University of Cambridge
SIR: I was surprised to find that A.B. Cooke’s review of Patrick Buckland’s A Factory of Grievances (LRB, 8 November) failed to mention the fact that Northern Ireland Cabinet records have been withheld from non-Unionist historians, something which is already causing a minor storm among Irish historians generally. Many critics and observers tend to regard books about the Irish past as boring, obsessive and far too numerous. However, the Northern Ireland authorities, perhaps in an unconscious tribute to the influence of the historian over future generations, appear to be positively terrified at the thought of what might be uncovered by ‘errant’ historians, perhaps like myself. Strange to think that Karl Marx never had this problem back in the 1850s. Perhaps the Belfast PRO has been told what his labours in the British Museum later gave rise to.
School of Peace Studies, Bradford University
SIR: Contrary to what was said in the note on British publication of books reviewed in the New York Review, The Apathetic Bookie Joint by Daniel Fuchs will, in fact, be published by us next April. May I, however, apart from using this letter as a free advertisement for what I and my colleagues believe to be a fine book, ask you whether you have a policy about dual reviewing. As Irving Howe’s distinguished contribution shows, Fuchs is precisely the kind of writer who will garner serious review attention in England when published over here. May we and other publishers expect, when we issue American books that have inevitably appeared first in the United States and, if worthy, will have been reviewed in your parent journal, that they will receive separate coverage from the London end; or will they miss the English reviewing boat? I think that most publishers over here would like to know how you intend to cope with what is, admittedly, a complex problem.
In the meantime, I am glad to see the increasing spread of coverage for fiction and poetry.
Managing Director, Secker and Warburg, London W1
We are working on the basis that no book published in Britain should be excluded from consideration in the London Review of Books on the grounds that it has been reviewed in the New York Review of Books.
Editor, ‘London Review’