SIR: One of the old guard’s arguments against the study of contemporary literature at university used to be that it needed a generation or so before one could be sure which writers had ‘permanent value’ and which were only voguish successes destined for early oblivion. I don’t think anyone – least of all in university English departments – has bothered to examine the mechanisms of the process whereby an author’s ‘permanent value’ becomes established. It seems to be assumed that the ‘invisible hand’, long since discredited in economics, still operates to fix the value of a work of literature. Alternatively, it could be what we may call the ‘invisible brain’ – the unthinking consensus of staff in English departments – which establishes the status of a work.
A great deal of reading and writing goes on outside universities (and the school sixth forms which they have ideologically colonised), but universities control the nation’s literary taste to a remarkable extent. They obviously have no impact on the Mills and Boon sector of the market, and it is possible that an author such as Dickens survives on the momentum of the success he had while still alive. But certain authors – Jane Austen and Joseph Conrad, for example – definitely owe their continuing vogue to the propaganda success of the Leavisite movement, and Shakespeare would surely have a much smaller audience today if it were not for the teachers and lecturers who work so hard to sensitise people to the beauties of his archaic language and the grandeur of his ambivalent moral vision. This influence is not confined to the reputation of dead authors: English departments provide a haven for a number of contemporary writers, and an even larger number of critics in the weekly papers.
In principle, none of this is very strange, perhaps not even regrettable. Presumably, since it is thought to need at least a generation or so before one can know whether contemporary writing has ‘permanent value’, we cannot be positive that there is any harm in the donnish conspiracy to raise up, let’s say, William Golding MA or Iris Murdoch MA at the expense of Len Deighton or Michael Lindsay. As for dead writers, the well-known self-evidently deserve their reputation, and the unknown, equally self-evidently, don’t exist.
Yet despite their frequently cavalier attitude to historical processes and historical contexts, English professors cannot ignore the past altogether. Some writers had such an enormous reputation, and for so long, that its reverberations still rattle the portals of academe today. The best example is Byron. Europeans, who don’t read poetry the way I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis taught us to, still insist Byron is a key figure in European Romanticism; and Americans obviously cannot be expected to neglect such a rich source of marginalia. Even in Britain, outside academe, Byron is still a household name, if only because of his supposed glamour as the archetypal Regency rake-cum-creative genius, the face that launched a thousand Barbara Cartland and Georgette Heyer novels. Only in Britain’s universities is he neglected.
And just as our academics throw down the idols of the past, so they set up in their place gods whom no previous generation bothered to whore after. For over two hundred years Donne was known to the excessively well-read, perhaps even had one or two very grudging admirers; and in the 1890s a small degree of interest in him (partly antiquarian) developed. Then, in the 1920s, the good fortune that his poetry lent itself so well to practical criticism, and, furthermore, dealt with sex, rocketed him into the classic bracket. John Clare and Gerard Manley Hopkins had to wait till the 1950s; the 1960s made them household names, in every household where Eng Lit was studied. Isaac Rosenberg has been coming up fast since the 1970s. And so on.
Precisely on what rational basis this throwing down and raising up occurs is a mystery. It cannot simply be a question of merit, utterly wonderful as John Clare and Isaac Rosenberg undoubtedly are. Simon Berington’s Adventures of Signor Gaudentio di Lucca (1737) was one of the best-known novels of the 18th century; one of the best-written, with many technical innovations anticipating 20th-century experiments in form, and with a great deal of interest in its subject-matter. Since it hasn’t been reprinted since the 1850s it is hardly surprising that it is not taught at undergraduate level, but a little peculiar that even eminent experts in early 18th-century English literature have never heard of it. George Lawrence’s Guy Livingstone (1857) is a little more available, having last been reissued in 1947. It is perhaps the most readable of Victorian novels, and in its day one of the most influential; and for the student of Victorian England, one of the most illuminating. Perhaps it isn’t in the same league as Wuthering Heights, but it cannot be far behind Jane Eyre: for some reason it hasn’t merited a single academic article since 1952.
If present oblivion is justified as some sort of revenge by destiny for a formerly inflated reputation, what of all the unknowns who have deserved, but not obtained, the posthumous recognition enjoyed by Donne and Clare? Five years ago I attempted, in the pages of the Review of English Studies, to point out that George Walker’s The Vagabond (1799) was a minor classic. That was the last – and almost the first – the world heard of George Walker. Perhaps I was wrong: perhaps Thomas Love Peacock really is a better comic novelist of ideas – but I get the impression that academics simply want to stick to Peacock because they have become accustomed to him, and accustomed to boring students with him.
In fostering the reputations of authors who have become acknowledged ‘greats’, academics are obviously fostering their own reputations. If one publishes on an unknown author, one’s work will be dismissed as unimportant. If one publishes the 59th monograph on William Wordsworth since 1970, the authors of the other 58 monographs will jostle eagerly for the opportunity to review your work or to discuss it at conferences. Now, personally, I would much rather read the poetry of William Wordsworth than the poetry of Thomas Campbell, a contemporary of Wordsworth whose poetry had enormous influence and public esteem in the decade following the publication of Lyrical Ballads. I even think academics might have problems finding anything worthwhile to say about Campbell’s poetry. But then they do not always have worthwhile things to say about Wordsworth.
More and more scholars are dealing with their authors in some sort of cultural, ideological or social context: emphasis on the achievement of the individual ‘great writer’ is being replaced by an emphasis on his location in the traditions of his own day. That, at any rate, is the theory. The practice is for the same old ‘big’ names to be trotted out and to be presented as typical, or representative, or whatever: and the obscure authors whom the scholar never bothered to read are ignored in the same old way, irrespective of how typical or representative they may have appeared to the misguided taste of their contemporaries. The work of Raymond Williams and, even more, of Terry Eagleton thus presents the past in terms of the writers regarded as significant by the present: not necessarily a bad thing, except that it often looks too much like an attempt to find a trendy left-wing excuse for endorsing the same old conservative selection of names in the departmental syllabus.
SIR: I do not know what personal nerve I could have touched in Anita Brookner for her so sourly to misrepresent my novel The Facilitators in your columns (LRB, 7 October). I would have hoped that your journal’s previous interest in my work would have guaranteed at the very least a fairly close reading of my text. The core or disclosurepoint of the book is on page 142, and includes a famous quotation: ‘ “…the Gate was opened to me, that in one Quarter of an Hour I saw and knew more than if I had been many years together at an University, at which I exceedingly admired." This book that I am writing to tell you about the Institute lies in front of you because every detail, every tremor in it was implanted in my skin during that act…Fiction and fact, what is before you now is the effort to express truthfully what I knew and felt in that moment.’
Such moments of disclosure, when they occur, are notoriously difficult to reproduce or describe directly: if one is a mystic, one usually declares they are ‘incommunicable’. Yet in one form or another they are among the most important of human experiences. One of their characteristics is a certain strangeness or peculiarity that remains after the core of the experience has evaporated, a kind of impulsion or eccentricity that has been recorded of mystics from Hildegarde of Bingen to the hero of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. My strategy in The Facilitators has been to approach the core experience through its eccentricities. This happens also to be the chief therapeutic method in Jungian psychology. In the free play of the imagination, in fantasy, in ‘negotiations with the inferior function’, we have an important therapeutic method that assembles all that is neglected and strange in us, and once more centres it around an undeniable integrative experience. What we make of this afterwards depends on ourselves; but above all we must not neglect the strange, because it is exactly this, and not the conventional, which can lead us to the truth about ourselves.
It is hard to have this programme unnoticed or misunderstood by your reviewer. ‘Introversion’ is not ‘solipsism’, though for the extrovert Ms Brookner that may be how it appears. ‘Magic…which is used in the cause of easy-access surrealism and hippie celebrations…’ I search my book in vain for hippies, and I have said quite plainly that the magic is all Tall Stories: ‘Nice try, Daniel…But I think I should like to hear a few more stories about me first’ (page 173). The confidence tricksters come into the Institute with the explicit intention of inventing a madness so magical or comical that ‘it makes Madame laugh.’ But they are overtaken, not by ‘willed lunacy’, but by an unexpected integration: ‘We…have become what we are; and it wasn’t quite what we expected or wanted, brushed by these wings’ (page 170). Clearly I haven’t made Ms Brookner laugh, nor has anybody else much, to judge by her review generally: but then she is not Madame (or is pretending that she is not she).
Ms Brookner herself has emptied my book of meaning, and purveyed the husk of it. She says: ‘ “magical masturbation", for example, is supposed to bring about dynamic transformations in consciousness.’ But does masturbation not bring about transformations of consciousness? Most people find that it does: though there is a class of people to whom masturbation, and sex, are merely the release of an intolerable pressure. My book is absolutely against such an idea. My central character declares this on page 90: her credo is that masturbation, whatever else it may also be, is an excellent preparation for loving intercourse. Plain speaking on this subject, and the importance of masturbation in achieving depth of intercourse, is one of the liberations achieved in this generation by the Women’s Movement. Is masturbation and erotic enthusiasm what Ms Brookner means by ‘induced delirium’?
I chose the title very carefully. The word ‘facilitator’ is not my own coinage. It is one used in the humanistic psychology movement: in its desire to be thoroughly democratic, there are no ‘therapists’ charged with the responsibility of healing, there are only ‘facilitators’ whose task it is to make obstacles easier to surmount. I thought ‘facilitator’ a funny word, containing a serious and important idea, suitable for what I intended to be a funny book, also containing what I considered an important idea. Indeed, why does everybody have to be so solemn about psychology, when every working therapist or facilitator knows that those culminations which occur in analytical work, those moments of ‘emotional insight’ (as defined by Rycroft), are always accompanied by astonishment and wonder, often by laughter or overwhelming good cheer, and a kind of marvellous delirium which is both sensuous and intellectual at once, which the analyst attempts to contain. Such occurrences look strange to people who have not experienced them, and even stranger to people who have some interest in resisting and distorting them, but are nevertheless what my book is about. I wish Ms Brookner had passed it to a more interested reviewer, instead of difficilitating it.
SIR: It is my old-fashioned practice not to reply to reviews. So I had no thought of responding to Graham Bradshaw’s ill-informed, inaccurate and extraordinarily venomous attack upon my Arden edition of Hamlet (LRB, 2 September). Nor could reply have been necessary, since none of your readers could fail to perceive the prejudice and malevolence conspicuous throughout that review. But now that Mr Bradshaw has chosen, and your admirable sense of justice has permitted him, to add further gratuitous insult (Letters, 21 October), this calls for a reluctant comment. To Richard Proudfoot’s polite objection that the review ignored many virtues of the edition which a reviewer ought to notice Mr Bradshaw has significantly offered no reply. There is no sign that he has any of the qualifications which Mr Proudfoot has for assessing the merits of any Shakespeare edition. So instead he insults Mr Proudfoot for the offence of approving of an edition which he himself is anxious only to discredit. His statement that he ‘felt compelled to write a harsh review, not least because Professor Jenkins’s treatment of other critics and unwanted complications is so peremptorily dismissive’ need be taken no more seriously than anything else from so reckless and malicious a pen. In writing the review he was indulging himself, for it is clear that he wanted to write it because he hated a book which most other readers have liked and that he hated it because it discountenanced some critical views which it now appears that he holds. Mr Bradshaw manifests to a quite abnormal degree the human failing of imputing one’s own vices to another. Nothing could be more ‘peremptorily dismissive’ than the treatment in his review of my critical discussion of the play. What another reviewer called ‘a fine critical and interpretative essay which is at once elegantly written and full of ideas’ was greeted by Mr Bradshaw with nothing but the sneering and jeering which characterise his critical method. And this practitioner of sneers and insults now accuses me of ‘critical bad manners’. None of your readers who care to set my book beside Mr Bradshaw’s review of it will be in the slightest doubt about where the bad manners are. Should you not cease to allow them to disgrace your once reputable journal?
SIR: In his review of Questions of Cinema and The Sexual Fix (LRB, 21 October), Geoffrey Hawthorn labels me as ‘vulgar’ and ‘puritanical’. The latter term is left with neither definition nor justification but the first apparently relates to my inability to understand oppression other than ‘in the old sense’. I confess that I have no idea of what the new – refined? – sense might be, but, leaving that to the care of Mr Hawthorn, I am grateful to him for having made it clear that ordinary, everyday, old oppression is what I am interested in fighting.
Two out of 11 essays in Questions of Cinema had previously appeared in Screen, not ‘several’ as stated.
Jesus College, Cambridge
SIR: I’m glad to learn that, though he seems to dislike professionalism in the arts, Mr Hutchison (Letters, 4 November) really has it in only for ‘professional narcissism’. (I imagine he means this phrase to imply that professional artists are narcissists, not that narcissists can make a living from their narcissism.) May I take the chance to add a more interesting footnote to my review, which accepted the Arts Council’s own account of the proportion of its fund that goes to literature (0.8 per cent in the year ended March 1982). The Bookseller has pointed out that this ignores the money that goes from the Arts Council to the Scottish and Welsh Arts Councils, some of which they spend on literature. This brings literature’s share up to 1.8 per cent – though that is still, as the Bookseller says, ‘not a proportion to be proud of.’
I expect Mr Hawtree thinks Hamlet is a play about Fortinbras. In reviewing two books which he may ‘buy, borrow or ignore as he sees fit’, I wrote 120 sentences. Five of them make allusion to PLR. In the course of ten years’ campaigning, I wrote articles (and memoranda, papers, lectures etc) that truly were ‘about Public Lending Right’ whenever I got the chance. My fees, when there were any, went to Writers Action Group and thus helped finance the campaign. My PLR income will certainly not amount to compensation for the earning power I forfeited during those years. I doubt if it will even pay the postage for answering the PLR inquiries I get by every delivery.
SIR: I enjoyed reading David Lodge’s reflections on The Dam Busters (LRB, 21 October), particularly his attempt to show how this popular war film differs, in its clipped-back tones and rather chilly finish, from many others of its genre. Nevertheless, in moving from literary criticism to a more broadly speculative cultural commentary Lodge runs into one or two problems. In particular, his use of what one might call the English department ‘we’ begs large questions. Lodge describes how, at the end of the film, Gibson attempts to console Barnes Wallis, distraught at hearing of the aircrew losses, by commenting: ‘Even if all those fellows had known from the beginning that they wouldn’t be coming back, they would still have gone for it.’ Lodge then observes of this remark: ‘But even if he really believed it, we certainly don’t.’ Oh don’t ‘we’ indeed – and ‘certainly’ too! I can assure him that when I first saw this film as a schoolboy I certainly did ‘believe’ the remark, and so, perhaps, did many others in the audience, though I don’t intend to set up any interpretative unity to counter his. Was it not one more affirmation of quietly heroic sacrifice? Or, at the very least, one of those statements for which the popular mythology of war demanded a patriotic suspension of disbelief? Nothing that Lodge says about the nature of the ending need conflict with this kind of interpretation, which relies on some notion of the terrible majesty of loss and which I imagine many post-Falkland audiences might be as inclined to share as those of the Fifties.
Centre for Communication Studies, University of Liverpool
SIR: Readers of Patrick Wormald’s review of Dark Age Economics by Richard Hodges (LRB, 21 October) may like to know that the book is available also in paperback at £7. 95.
Duckworth, London NW1