Diary

Karl Miller

There are more of them now in London, more reviews, than there used to be. A welcome shake-up in the newspaper world has brought this about. New papers have occasioned a remarkable and continuing exodus of notable writers from the old ones, which have set themselves, in defence, to expanding their book sections, and may in desperation have to turn their hand to the task of discovering and developing new writers to fill their vacant spaces. It would be good if this were to send up the ratio of books reviewed to books published. But that won’t happen. Most books will remain unnoticed; the same small number will be reviewed, for a while, in a larger number of places. In all too many of these places there will simply be more of the customary rubbishing and rave. Few people can be looking forward to the dawn of a new respect for the judgments purveyed by reviewers.

It may seem quaint for an editor of the London Review of Books, which has now been alive and kicking for ten years, to complain about reviews, to kick against the kicks. But I’d be sorry if it seemed inappropriate. Judgment is an activity which readers have from the earliest been thought to perform, and encouraged to perform, and it has long been convenient to arrange for people to exercise their judgment in providing information about some of the thousands of books which are published every year. But judgment and hostility are two different, though convergent things, and what we are often conscious of, when reviewers show signs of being really interested in what they are saying, is a desire to punish or subdue, and in so doing to excel. I hope that the London Review has not been too heavily afflicted with that sort of excellence over its ten years of life, hostile though we have felt we have had to be to particular books, hostile though any paper has to be to this or that if it is to stay alive. Charges of hostility which have come our way have usually proved to refer, sometimes affectionately, to the Letters page: but I don’t tell myself that we can never have been held to be an offensive paper.

Nearly everyone knows what it is to be exposed to painful opinions – to poor marks, demotions, undeserved redundancies. Those who write books, however, have to take it in public. It’s not surprising that poets and novelists can be so savage with each other when they climb into the judgment seat themselves: they may have had more than their fair share of punishment, with a large crowd of onlookers goggling at their deserts. It’s also the case, I think, that such authors may experience each other as rivals, as threats. Primo Levi points this out in a further posthumous selection of his journalistic writings,[*] in which his two callings of artist and scientist are once more on display, and which serves as a reminder that journalism does have the power to lift the spirit by telling the truth. It is true to say as Levi does that ‘a writer is not a typical reader,’ and it may not be grossly false to say that ‘faced by a beautiful text he is envious.’ Writers are anxious, anxious for success. Their critics are anxious too, for the same reason, and they have plenty of reason to persuade themselves that nothing succeeds in journalism like demolition and derision.

As it happens, this is a time when we keep hearing, as often as not from the opinionated, that it is wrong to be ‘judgmental’. Reviewers are paid to be judgmental, and few are more judgmental than D.J. Taylor. Writing in the Independent during the present run-up to the Booker Prize award, he asks: ‘Where, in any international literary framework, is the British writer who matters?’ Not one, he suggests, can stand comparison with Marquez, Kundera, Tom Wolfe. What can the editor of the Independent have made of the claim that the writers praised and published in his pages do not matter? Perhaps he felt that it did not matter that D.J. Taylor felt that British writers do not matter. No doubt he is familiar with the vicarious nationalism of reviewers, with their ploy of blaming the natives for the excellence of foreign works.

Taylor has also published a short book, candidly entitled A Vain Conceit, about ‘British Fiction in the Eighties’[†] – the very fiction which he supposes not to matter. Kingsley Amis is present there as a ‘joke figure of the right’ who once asserted that ‘more will mean worse’ in the field of educational provision, and whose novels have got worse in the course of his thirty-five years of production. Taylor likes inverted commas: ‘Lucky Jim’s interest is at least as much sociological as literary, whether or not one accepts that no book can have a purely “literary” interest.’ And he likes to say that things are easy to forget: ‘it is very easy to forget Lucky Jim’s many levels as a literary text.’ After a while:

Examining the wreckage of a considerable career, you can forgive Amis a great deal. You can forgive the punditry – and even the most progressive educationalist approaches the ‘more will mean worse’ argument with an uneasy glint of recognition. You can forgive the linguistic caution, which proceeds from a quite reasonable assumption that the ordinary reader doesn’t like self-admiring mucking around with language. It is a little less difficult to forgive the persistent, bogus anti-intellectualism.

‘Less’ here means more. Taylor seems at times to forget what he is saying.

The book goes mattering on in the vein of the Independent article. ‘It takes a very special mixture of social and political circumstance to produce a Kundera or a Garcia Marquez, and it presupposes a literary tradition which this country has never been able or rarely even wanted to assimilate. To a degree it is unfair to mention English writers in the context of a culture which most would ignore and not a few entirely repudiate. After all, “European high culture” is a phrase which would have your average critic – an Auberon Waugh, an A.N. Wilson – reaching for a metaphorical shotgun.’ At this point the country is being said to be debarred from sharing in a tradition which, as Kundera himself has made clear, it helped to invent. Taylor later says that categorising is ‘unhelpful’, but that it is possible to identify ‘several “typical” book reviewers’. Here, and elsewhere, his inverted commas allow him to wriggle away from some term that he is using: he is such a sneerer that he even manages to sneer at himself. ‘Several “typical” book reviewers’ turns out to mean four. Reviewer A is male, down from Cambridge, daylighting as an accountant, and writing a book about Modernism, and the other three are types of silly girl. His ‘typical’ reviewers do not include his ‘average’ critics, Waugh and Wilson.

Taylor does have some kind words to say – about literary theory, for instance. ‘It is easy to mock the theorists ... but it is also easy to forget the genuine contribution which structuralism – itself a ragbag of other “isms” – has made to criticism. The point of a text is often what is absent from it. Taking a book to pieces, unravelling its signs, structures and themes, can often radically alter our perceptions of a novel.’ He professes to believe that none of this was known or done before Structuralism came along. Those who believe that the point of literary theory may include the absence from it of any interest in the work of contemporary writers, as well as an intolerance of academic predecessors, might well decide that, given the tendency of his diatribe, these kind words are suitably bestowed.

A painful disparagement has recently been effected by the polemical new art magazine Modern Painters. During the summer the painter Stephen Conroy made friends, and a lot of money, with his show at the Malborough Gallery in London’s West End. An attractive amber restaurant scene is reproduced in the magazine, and the picture is accompanied by a page of extracts from published notices of Conroy’s work. These extracts are charged with insulting language. Punch talks about a ‘fat wallet’ and about his ‘repellent dung-coloured Scottish gentlemen’. City Limits finds it ‘debatable whether there is a place today for an artist who believes that form should take such precedence over content’. What precedence is not apparent to the reader who has gathered that the paintings are strong in descriptions of dung. Apollo sneers at ‘an idiom of the past’. The Independent asks: ‘Is Conroy any good?’ Does he matter? He is ‘in danger of coasting on his own facility’. The Daily Telegraph hails ‘the emergence of a major new artist’, but the Observer sees nothing but ‘duff bravura and blank poise’. Peter Fuller, editor of Modern Painters, fears for the hyped Conroy. The Times Literary Supplement: a ‘sinister portent’. The Financial Times critic describes the paintings with care, but fetches up with ‘a scumbled emptiness’. The Tablet concedes ‘a formidable technical armoury’, but wonders ‘how far he will be able to surmount the undoubted impression of brilliance and éclat’. The Times warns of the ‘danger of getting trapped in a successful formula’. Brian Sewell of the Evening Standard ends the page by saying the same and adding that the paintings of this ‘precocious prodigy’ speak ‘only of provincial inexperience’.

These ladies and gentlemen of the bench of metropolitan critical adjudications concur, for the most part, in portraying a void, an empty fellow who has found favour and whose skill tends to be granted as a preliminary to expressions of fear and snobbish disapproval. The extracts, and their packaging in the form of an anthology of dispraise, directed at the outset, I presume, of someone’s career, read like the jealousy of a success, on the part of a phrase-making self-importance. There is a species of success, however, of which the magazine is prepared to be more tolerant. Prince Charles’s views on architecture, and Tom Wood’s serial portraits of the Prince, are considered respectfully and at length in the same issue.

The Booker short list has been announced, but the puffs of smoke have yet to ascend from the City of London. Habemus Papam. His Holiness James Kelman? That would be a turn-up for the Booker. I would imagine that Sister Margaret Atwood, or Brother Banville, is more likely to win the prize. On the short list is Rose Tremain, who teaches at the University of East Anglia. Two of the judges are feminists, and one of them also teaches at the University of East Anglia. And there have been rumours of a special earnestness which has insisted on the omission from the short list of Martin Amis’s London Fields, a novel which writes controversially about women, and alludes to the ‘pretty divots’ of its leading lady’s armpits. Literary prizes, one might reflect, have always been for withholding as well as awarding.

London Fields strikes me as a rich and funny book, but I wouldn’t want to suggest that there could be no doubts about it. It concerns the exploits of a trickster thug, Keith Talent, in a London that steals and that stands at the end of the world. It feels at first like some more of his previous novel, Money: you feel you are involved in the resurgence of a repartee, in the same poem of delinquency and excess. Both novels have an apparatus which enables them to project the writing of the novel as part of the story it tells. Both are ‘modern, modern’, as London Fields puts it – self-referential. And perhaps the new novel would be better still if it were more straightforwardly about Keith and had fewer nuclear bodings. Both novels are ludic and cryptic; they belong to the tradition to which D.J. Taylor thinks this country is incapable of contributing. Martin Amis said the other day that he doesn’t wish to write sentences which some other guy might have written, and some other guys might have trouble reading a number of the sentences in London Fields. On one occasion a parcel is retrieved which contains ‘an adorably fat and feminine hand’. We have to figure out that ‘hand’ may mean handwriting, a text. No attack on women seems intended.

It is, I’d submit, very much Ben Jonson’s kind of book. Jonson’s play The Alchemist is about ‘a cheater and his punk’, and so is London Fields. Each is a comedy of humours and of manners, with Epicure Mammon and Subtle the alchemist ancestral, in name and generic nature, to Keith Talent, with his artful dodges, gulls, and loads of money. Jonson’s play comes from a time when there could be premonitions of disaster, millennial expectations, the sense of an ending, and Amis’s time is not very different in that respect. Each work mingles street talk and scientific language, and pays attention to an Occult: for Jonson, alchemy was a clear fraud, while Amis seems equivocally disposed in relation to the astronomy and catastrophe, space-time and black holes, with which he conjures. The Prologue to Jonson’s play might be thought to boast on Amis’s behalf, and be damned to D.J. Taylor.

Our scene is London,’ cause we would make known,
No country’s mirth is better than our own.

Aware of what is to be expected of the ‘judging spectators’ of the time, the Prologue desires ‘justice’ for the author of the play, and for the actors ‘grace’, or sympathy. Since then, authors must surely have moved on to hoping for a bit of both.

[*] Other People’s Trades by Primo Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal (Joseph, 209 pp., £12.95, 16 October, 0 7181 3331 5).

[†] A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the Eighties by D.J. Taylor (Bloomsbury, 135 pp., £4.99, 14 September, 0 7475 0 457 X).