The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918, D. J. Taylor, Chatto & Windus, 528pp, 2016, £25 (hardcover)
Sweeping prognoses of decline are pretty well de rigueur in literary editorialising today: the novel as a form is hopelessly marginalised, the internet is killing literature, etc. etc. Against this gloomy backdrop, the sober sanguinity of D. J. Taylor is most refreshing. Not that he is under any illusions: The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918 opens with the observation that ‘[i]n strict, taxonomic terms . . . the history of English literary culture in the period after 1918 is a chronicle of dissolution’, a time in which reading became ‘a minority pursuit . . . largely controlled by a cultivated elite’. He closes moreover with an expression of concern for the viability of literary culture in a digital world ‘where distraction arrives at half-minute intervals and sustained engagement with a text is more or less impossible to accomplish’. Nevertheless, Taylor, who is both a novelist and a long-serving literary critic for the Spectator and the Guardian, takes a broadly optimistic long-term view. He points out that the novel has always adapted to commercial and technological contingencies (noting, by way of example, that Ernest Hemmingway’s famously clipped writing style has been attributed to the fact that he composed at a typewriter), and maintains that academic overkill – a proliferation of literary studies scholarship ‘that seems to be written not to fill a space but to inflate a CV – and the institutionalisation of the creative writing metier pose ‘far more of a threat to the survival of any kind of literary culture than cyberspace or online collaboration’.
Indeed the whole story of The Prose Factory is one of change. Men and women rise and fall with the vagaries of literary taste; time and again we encounter the sad spectacle of yesterday’s doyen turning into today’s pa- riah. These include such figures such as the novelist Hugh Walpole, ‘an unmourned casualty of the 1930s culture wars; a writer who, however successful on his own terms, strained every sinew in pursuit of a goal which respectable opinion had long ago decided was scarcely worth having’. And the demise – culminating in a slide into alcoholism, marital breakup and social isolation – of the polymath J. C. Squire, whose late-life travails exemplify the archetypal aesthetic reactionary:
the man who is intelligent enough to see that many of the things he protests about have merit, that not all experimenters and free-formers are charlatans, that there are other kinds of poetry beyond the lyric, but is temperamentally unable to abandon the promontory he has carved out for himself even as the tides begin to roll in.
The numerous personal stories in this book are a stark reminder – as if we needed it – of the precariousness of a life in letters: loneliness, penury, acrimony and regret – and that’s just the ones who made it. Taylor is insightful, and occasionally withering, on the nexus between personal dispositions and intellectual output, acidly remarking of the young public-school communists of the 1930s that ‘their habit of carrying huge amounts of psychological-cum-cultural baggage’ was their primary common characteristic. (The rise of the political left in British cultural life from the 1930s until mid-century is treated somewhat frostily, though Taylor just about manages to pay it its due, acknowledging – in Richard Crossman’s famous phrase – the ‘psychological landslide to the left’ that culminated in the election of a Labour government in 1945, and the foundation of the NHS).
For obvious historical reasons, politics looms particularly large in the novels of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Taylor astutely highlights the peculiar ambivalence that underlies the British cultural obsession with class. The eponymous hero of William Cooper’s The Struggles of Albert Woods (1952) is typical, Taylor writes, insofar as his ‘complaint about the mid-century establishment . . . is not that it exists, or that it is fundamentally undemocratic, but that it does not yet include himself’. Kingsley Amis’s well documented journey from iconoclast to conservative establishment mainstay is in this respect emblematic of the British class system’s uniquely efficient capacity to absorb its most eloquent malcontents. Taylor is similarly phlegmatic in his demystifying of literary sacred cows, observing, for example, that the Bloomsbury group’s attempts at self-definition ultimately came down to ‘straightforward personal attraction’ – its central tenet was its own exceptionalism – and that, furthermore, the group’s rarefied hauteur was at odds with a cultural zeitgeist that was increasingly driven by ‘mass markets aesthetics, where taste was ever more diffuse and the ideological context of cultural preferences grew ever more open to debate’. The one author seemingly exempt from this cool objectivity is George Orwell, who is accorded a degree of prominence and reverence in these pages a little out of proportion to his status in the scheme of things. Taylor is the author of a critically acclaimed Life of Orwell (Orwell: The Life, Chatto & Windus, 2003), which may explain this slight bias.
Two key developments emerge in Taylor’s overview of the postwar years. First, the demise – or, at any rate, the loss of cultural primacy – of a certain type of quintessentially English novel, partly a delayed effect of the in- novations of modernism but also, as Taylor acknowledges, a consequence of the horrors of the Second World War: ‘To put it bluntly . . . . Belsen, Auschwitz and Katyn need something more than the traditional patternings of character, irony and sentiment to be done justice by art’. (Though, with characteristic even-handedness, Taylor stands up for more traditionally inclined midcentury novelists. It would have been disingenuous of them to pretend, for the sake of moving with the times, to be something they were not, to affect a modernist aesthetic that was contingent on environmental factors: it wasn’t J. B. Priestley’s fault that he lived in London and not Chicago.)
Secondly, the professionalisation of English literary studies, first instigated in the 1930s, had by the 1950s opened up a schism within literary culture, ‘pitting the don against the man, or woman, of letters, the professional against the amateur, close readings against impressionist generalisation, the text-book against the literary essay’. The culture of mutual back-scratching in literary journalism drew the fire of academic criticism’s elder statesman, F. R. Leavis, who complained of ‘the almost complete triumph of the “social” (or the “associational”) values over those which are the business of the critic’. Taylor’s ruminations on the vicissitudes of the humble book reviewer call to mind Martin Amis’s remarks on the subject in the introduction to his collection of criticism, War Against Cliché (Vintage, 2002):
In the Sixties you could live on ten shillings a week: you slept on people’s floors and sponged off your friends and sang for your supper – about literary criticism. Then, abruptly, a bus fare cost ten shillings. The oil hike, and inflation, and then stagflation, revealed literary criticism as one of the many leisure-class fripperies we would have to get along without.
Amis went on to suggest that the democratising impulse of 1960s radicalism is to blame for having delegitimised the hierarchical certainties on which critical authority rests. That rather tenuous theory probably sounded more persuasive in vestigially postmodernism-addled 2002 than it does today; the more prosaic stuff about cash was probably closer to the truth. Monetisation remains the bane of the critic’s existence; cultural legitimacy can go hang.
The Prose Factory largely eschews overt political statements, but to the extent that there is a detectable ideological sensibility, it consists of a vaguely libertarian disposition, manifesting itself in varying degrees of hostility to the interventions of governments and universities. Taylor gives short shrift to the Arts Council, arguing that the proliferation of literary journals published under its auspices has amounted, at best, to a kind of revolution from above, scarcely comparable to the grass-roots vibrancy of literary culture in the era of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. If this might strike some readers as sentimentally formulaic – never mind funding cuts, let’s just await the next cataclysm, whereupon good art will take care of itself – his wariness of the effects of state coddling is surely healthy. And it is hard not to share his unease about the long-term implications of the irresistible rise of Creative Writing – the anaemic spectre of the twenty-first century novelist who scarcely experiences the world beyond the confines of the classroom, first as student and then as teacher, with all that that might entail for the quality of his or her output.
Terms like ‘must-read’ and ‘indispensable’ are much overused in reviewing parlance; they apply unequivocally to this book, which is superbly written and subtle and alert in its judgments. Bibliophiles of all shapes and sizes – readers, writers, critics and publishers alike – will find it both richly informative and deeply thought-provoking.
By Houman Barekat