Book Reviews

David Trotter

There is a poignant moment in the recent New Left Books volume of interviews with Raymond Williams[*] when he is congratulated on the ‘combativity’ of his writings. Poignant because the neologism, however barbarous, answers to a real scarcity: the scarcity, in our cultural repertoire, of sustained polemical address: Not that our literary pages don’t witness occasional outbreaks of revenger’s tragedy. Indeed, most literary editors seem to keep at least one professional malcontent on the payroll, in case the general air of despondent calm becomes too oppressive (or perhaps just to make sure of getting their retaliation in first). But the ‘combativity’ of such stalwarts rarely extends beyond sporadic local skirmishing, and their bloodletting often seems hugely gratuitous. For our intellectual habits include attentiveness, scruple and a kind of anorexic wit: but not polemic.

This scarcity is sometimes attributed to the national character, but we might find a more persuasive reason in the protocols which govern such continuing (weekly or fortnightly) discussion of cultural matters as does go on. The literary pages of the newspapers and more widely read journals are characterised by wall-to-wall reviewing. The review, consequently, is the most popular instrument we have for organising and distributing the production of ideas, for thinking about thinking (meta-discourse). The literary pages include essays, short stories and poems as well as reviews, but usually in a supporting role; the poems in particular seem thematically and typographically bundled in, like the last pair of socks into an already full suitcase. Reviews constitute the dominant form of discourse in those pages, and the only form of meta-discourse. They are therefore subject to frequent scrutiny and accusation, much of it pointless because it understands reviewing as a moral or intellectual condition rather than as one practice of writing among many. Scrutineers approach the ‘state’ of reviewing in the attitude of moral reformer or drill sergeant: from now on, they insist, each task must be performed at the double. I think we should instead attempt to understand reviewing as a practice (following the traditional Marxist definition of practice as specific work on a material for a specific purpose within certain necessary social conditions). Like any practice, it has strengths and limitations, which we need to analyse and pose against those of other practices: only then will we be able to assess the effect of its dominance.

The practice of reviewing might be defined by its reticence about those elements which compose it as a practice: its purpose and its methods. In the first place, what function does a review perform? Should it entertain? Should it constitute devil’s advocacy? Or the verdict of a representative reader? Or even a kind of decompression chamber, regulating an author’s return to the surface after intense and lonely toils in the creative deep? Uncertain as to exactly what they ought to be doing, the less exhibitionist among reviewers quite properly settle for the role of middleman, mediating the transfer of worthy books from producer to consumer. They allow their role to be defined by the system in which they operate, as medium rather than agency. So, books pass through reviews and are perhaps coloured by the process, but their mysterious inviolable essence – it is thought – can only be captured before or after that event, in the private pleasures of writing and reading.

In the second place, reviewing tends to naturalise its own procedures, and to envisage the book concerned as the object of a simple act of perception. Constraints on time and space prevent any great elaboration of method, as does the reviewer’s (probable) lack of specialist knowledge. But, more important, I think, reviews are only thought to display true grit when conducted at close quarters – the command seems to be: ‘Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes.’ Reviewers may invoke context, but they seem happier applying cold steel to exemplary detail: recounting plots, probing quotations, isolating terms, unravelling faulty metaphors. Close-quarter carnage sets the seal on a reviewer’s integrity, but it also narrows in that same movement the options available to the reader. Pressed up against or into the text under examination, we no longer notice who is holding it in place for us, and we don’t feel encouraged to ask whether it might not have been framed differently. Any practice committed to such drastic foreshortening is unlikely to become part of a developing and clearly motivated process of work: the minimum condition for polemic.

Uncertainty about purpose and method tends to generate self-justifying attitudes of a mordantly conservative cast. For example, the anti-academicism flaunted by some reviewers clearly derives from their conception of themselves as efficient but discriminating middlemen. Academics are characterised as interposing their careerist pedantry between literature and the Common Reader, and so blocking the free and natural circulation of ideas. Remove this blockage, the rhetoric insists, and direct communication will be restored. Most people would agree that academics often commit pedantry (not to mention careers), but the rhetoric is designed to do more than correct: it is designed to establish reviewing as a superior medium of communication. This argument carries the moral and intellectual force of any search for common ground, but fails because it is based on precarious assumptions about the survival (intact) of an already constituted readership and a particular intellectual tradition. The major emphasis of cultural theory and practice during the 20th century has, in fact, been on the training of new audiences rather than the reproduction of old ones.

The other face of anti-academicism is a systematic bias against those new modes of thinking which address themselves to differently-constituted audiences. Encountering the unfamiliar, most reviewers drop into routines less appropriate to argument than to bomb disposal: circle your object, spot the vital wires from a safe distance, then leap in to sever them and render the thing harmless. The brassy ‘all clear’ which rings out in the final paragraphs of such reviews is truly chilling, because what this irrelevant dexterity has supposedly disabled is not just a mechanism, but an initiative. An initiative, furthermore, which will not fare much better among the smaller and more partisan journals, where the problem is that the scope of assimilation vastly exceeds the scope of understanding: new modes of thought can either, it appears, be swallowed whole or spat out – a situation for which the conservatism of the literary pages of our major journals must bear joint responsibility.

The review-form is not the ‘cause’ of such complacencies, but it does allow and encourage them. Reviewing, however, will always remain a hit-and-miss affair, dependent on editoral tact and the availability of the right books. Its ‘state’ could no doubt be improved but seems less of a cause for concern than its dominance of the literary pages – a dominance which can only be challenged by the introduction of other practices (for example, the analysis of key problems or key terms in a particular field). The latter function would still be properly journalistic, but would involve a greater awareness of the forms, purposes and conditions of our thought; while the posing of one practice against or alongside another might be expected to make polemic possible as a cultural response, and to further more effectively the discovery and renewal of audiences.

[*] Politics and Letters is discussed by John Dunn on page 8.