There is a story that Gershom Scholem, the scholar of Jewish mysticism, was being introduced at a lecture in New York. Mysticism, the introducer said sarcastically, is nothing; but a history of nothing – well, that is science. The same can be said, multipliedly, of Derwent May’s book, which is essentially a history of the book review, a genre of such tiny dignity that its life might better be left unexamined. Over large portions, this book is about nothing – or, nothing more than the weekly phut-phut of the English literary establishment. It is a book in which the reader learns how to endure, if never quite outwit, a dark regime of sentences such as ‘One feature for which the Lit Supp has always been famous is its cantankerous letters,’ or ‘One of the happiest events for the Lit Supp in 1916 was Virginia Woolf’s return in the spring to health, and to its reviewing team.’
Nevertheless, this history, while locally numbing, is cumulatively quite stimulating. Something will come of nothing: the book review does have a history, even if it turns out to be largely a history of the littérateur. Critical Times, while recording the not uninteresting rise of a great literary journal, also tells us something about the growing status of fiction in 20th-century intellectual discourse, and about the largely welcome professionalisation of literary criticism since the Second World War. F.R. Leavis once sneered that since Modernism the only art form to have developed significantly had been the advertisement. Perhaps unexpectedly, the evidence presented by May suggests that the book review could be added to Leavis’s sour index.
May’s history begins in 1902, when the Lit Supp, as it was quickly nicknamed, was born from the rib of the Times, partly as an overflow for reviews from the newspaper. May’s selection of detail, from an enormous supply of it, is shrewd, and we learn quite a lot about the easy, gentlemanly literary habits of early 20th-century London. The paper’s first lead review was of More Letters of Edward Fitzgerald, done by Augustine Birrell, a barrister, a Liberal MP, and the author of a volume of essays entitled Obiter Dicta. The first poem was by Harold Begbie. It was an anthem for Empire, and May succinctly describes it as ‘rather an absurd poem’. English studies, as an academic discipline, hardly existed. This world was Q’s cave: a warm, amateurish, freshly-dug hideout in which, say, G.S. Gordon, when he succeeded Walter Raleigh as Merton Professor of English at Oxford, ‘was said to have got the job largely on the strength of his Lit Supp contributions’. In that first year of the TLS’s existence, The Wings of the Dove was reviewed by Constance Fletcher, who wondered how James’s novel would do ‘for short railway journeys and drowsy hammocks’, and Youth (which contained Heart of Darkness), reviewed by William Beach Thomas, who had robustly little time for Conrad’s dense pessimism. Two years later, on Chekhov’s death, Francis Gribble magniloquently wavered on the fine point of the Russian’s stature: ‘he may or may not have been a man of genius.’
Too often, reviewing was an annex of manners. The triply-named bookman – Arthur Quiller-Couch, Arthur Clutton-Brock, John Cann Bailey – fumed or fawned for seven hundred inconsequential words and then retired to his club, where he could doze amid a cloudy consensus. At times intellectual life was more strenuous than that. May quotes from the diary of John Cann Bailey (who would become one of the early regular fiction reviewers); here is a typical day of his, from 1894:
Breakfast 9.20. Times and letters. Writing at Gibbon (article on), 11.15. 1.20 lunch. Saintsbury Lyrics. Out 3-5 p.m. Tea with Watson’s new volume of poems. Writing Gibbon till 7.15. Dinner at club. Back here 9 to read Lucretius with Richmond and Dodgson. Then at 11.15 went in to F. Smith and had long talk about marriage. Bed 12.30, an hour later than usual.
This is certainly energetic; but it is entirely institutional. John Cann Bailey might as well be writing his piece on Gibbon in the way that he reads Lucretius, ‘with Richmond and Dodgson’. It has been calculated that 20 per cent of the contributors to the TLS under the editorship of Bruce Richmond (1903-37) were members of the Athenaeum. Most articles were of course unsigned until 1974, and at least in those early years the paper’s fabled anonymity was really the signature of the institutional, the establishment’s individual voice. It makes one think of Emily Dickinson’s ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?’
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
Writing anonymously, you could be ‘nobody’ precisely because you were ‘somebody’ in the establishment (Dickinson craves the opposite security: to be somebody by truly being nobody). Richmond used bishops, diplomats, vicars, soldiers and politicians, along with scholars and hacks. May discusses anonymity, and John Gross’s decision to abandon it in 1974, at length, but he is himself in the end too committed to a notion of institutional success to be distracted by such questions.
Anonymity is an interesting topic largely because it would be so clearly exploited and challenged by the TLS’s greatest regular contributor, Virginia Woolf, who began to write for the paper in 1905. The story of Woolf’s tense, quick-eyed struggle against the men she called ‘Romans’ is still full of pathos and interest, and May briefly – too briefly – kindles to it. Woolf compacted her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, and those like him, into a double-headed institution, ‘Eton-Cambridge’. (Bruce Richmond was, in fact, Winchester-Oxford.) They kept the cultural wheels of Empire turning, and were necessary, ‘like Roman roads’. The TLS was stuffed with them. When she started reviewing, she felt torn, she said, between two impulses: she could hear her dead mother telling her to be sweet and gracious to powerful men, much as she had had to be when such men came to Hyde Park Gate for tea with her father; and yet ‘my real delight in reviewing is to say nasty things.’ The latter mood prevailed, and, in addition to the great manifestos she sent to the TLS (like ‘How It Strikes a Contemporary’), she worked more ordinarily from week to week as a kind of beater, poking into startled flight the gamey old captains who sat on their institutional haunches coddling their endless dreary books. These marvellous pieces, hundreds and hundreds of them, are being steadily collected and edited by Andrew McNeillie. The opening of Woolf’s review of A.C. Benson’s memoirs, though not in fact a TLS piece, shows her in characteristic club-clearing mode:
In order to appreciate Mr Benson’s memories fully one should have been educated at Eton and Cambridge. One should have a settled income. One should have an armchair. One should have dined well. In this mood, and in these circumstances, nothing can be pleasanter than to hear old stories of old dons; how Austen Leigh, for instance, once spat out a glass of wine at a railway station, which reminds us how very queer his pronunciation was . . .
May quotes Woolf reviewing the essays of the well-known literary editor and bookman, J.C. Squire, and complaining that he is ‘preoccupied with the effort to be smooth, demure and irreproachable’. She was preoccupied with the opposite, and her style marked that effort. For Woolf truly had a style, while most of her fellow contributors had only syntax. She both delighted in the patriarchal anonymity of the TLS and simultaneously tilted at it. Note how, in the review of Benson’s memoir, she uses the anonymous ‘one’ and ‘us’ to mock its universality. She surely knew that her prose had to sign itself. Her essays, both in texture and content, were self-advertisements. She was pushing a project: her own kind of novel. She argued against the heavy, mercantile realism of Edwardian novelists such as Bennett and Galsworthy, writers who, it seemed to her, only notarised their characters by listing their clothes, incomes, houses. Bennett thought that the man Sherlock Holmes was full of life; Woolf that he was a sack stuffed with straw. Her realism – fragmentary, inward, fluid – was an attempt to notarise consciousness itself.
But then Woolf’s whole endeavour reminds us of the difference between reviewing and criticism. Reviewing is a kind of rapid-eye-movement of judgment, which barely lasts the night and is promptly forgotten. Reviewing has no impact on the progress of any work of literature; it can only hinder or chivvy the institutional success of a work of art. Randall Jarrell used to say that the critic’s duty was to be ‘right’; he liked rhetorically to wonder how many of us would have recognised Moby-Dick’s greatness in 1851. But there is no evidence that the weather of reviewing affects the climate of literature much, since it does not create literature. Moby-Dick already existed by the time the reviewers came down on it.
Like Alexander the Great blocking the sunlight while standing next to Diogenes in his tub, reviewing can only hinder what it has not made. I suspect that May knows this, if only because his book is a melancholy record of lost opportunities: The Rainbow and The Good Soldier both ignored by the TLS in 1915; Prufrock and Other Observations denounced as having nothing to do with poetry in 1917; Frost’s Selected Poems dismissed by Edmund Blunden in 1923 as ‘mostly prose in iambic decasyllables’; La coscienza di Zeno excoriated as ‘interminable bavardage’ in 1926. The TLS was not uniquely or even eccentrically foolish, of course. To be fair, the paper was prescient about Buddenbrooks, Proust and Kafka. And after the Second World War, like most review journals, it was much less likely to condemn new and difficult work, much more cautious and chastened. But the very anarchy of praise and criticism, of accuracy and failure in May’s history, only shows how finally unimportant was ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’. (I don’t mean that it is not incumbent on a critic to try to be right about a book; only that the attempt to be accurate is probably irrelevant to its reputation.) Reading May’s history is a curious exercise in doubleness: his evidence suggests that reviewing has no real literary utility, but the form of his story needs to insist on the idea of such utility (or rather, he needs contradictorily to believe that bad reviews make no difference to great writers while good reviews somehow ease their paths).
Criticism, of the kind Woolf wrote, influences literature by becoming it; and as with literature you will probably not know you were in the presence of criticism. Breaking with the upholstered certainties of so many of the reviewers around her, Woolf wrote with a kind of forceful hesitation. Its force lay in the power and originality of her metaphors; its hesitation in the very fluidity of those metaphors, their careful evasion of pure or blunt summation. Metaphor, as for Coleridge and James, was for Woolf the language of criticism, and it enabled her to think through fiction rather than around it. Her father, the most illustrious bookman and bookish mind of his age, had written about books, with a healthy alienation from his subjects, and Woolf had been morbidly fascinated by the prospect of such a fundamentally un-literary mind working again and again on literary topics. By contrast, Woolf’s ‘unhealthy’ literary proximity to her subjects was a secret language of sharing, of likeness, and above all of competition. As a critic she was always in competition with the fiction she was reviewing, always showing a little plumage before it, and the proximity of her language constituted almost an intramural squabble. Such a style was a standing attack on the TLS tradition of anonymity.
Woolf, and the Modernism she promoted in the TLS (along with several major essays by Eliot), clearly represents one of the important breaks in the history of literature and literary journalism. Like most such breaks, it was a partly a break in manners, and partly a break in the idea of realism. Aesthetics is often no more than an idea of what art is for, what its function is in society. Those reviewers who dismissed Dubliners, and Dreiser, and Lawrence, and sometimes Woolf herself, had a socially clear idea of what fiction should do. The novel’s great bourgeois success had created the complacency with which it was read. Since most 19th-century novels were ‘realistic’, moral, socially respectable, and full of lively characters, these elements were taken to be the essence of successful fiction. May is alert to the strain of moral uplift in the paper’s regular fiction reviewers before the Second World War. He mentions a review of Brave New World which simply refuses to engage with Huxley’s book as anything more than a bit of ‘fun’. And he quotes John Cann Bailey, first on Shakespeare in 1905 (‘the suffering and death count for little or nothing, the greatness of the soul for much or all’) and then on Gilbert Murray’s The Classical Tradition in Poetry, in 1928. In that review, Bailey called for ‘elevated subjects’, and cried: ‘If life be not a great thing, why speak of it at all?’
Against this, came Modernism’s plea for the fragmented, the alienated, the pessimistic. ‘A shift in the scale – the war, the sudden slip of masses held in position for ages – has shaken the fabric from top to bottom,’ Woolf wrote in 1923, in ‘How It Strikes a Contemporary’. From a later perspective, ‘the sudden slip of masses held in position for ages’ seems to have occurred not after the First World War, but after the Second. Yet after the Second World War, at least in Britain, there was no great corresponding artistic revolution. Simplifyingly, one could say that Modernism spoke as if reality had changed, when really only literature had; whereas the postwar generation spoke as if literature had changed when only reality had. (There is nothing revolutionary, in any artistic sense, about Lucky Jim or D.J. Enright’s poems.) Yet the idea of what literature was for had changed. May is right to quote G.S. Fraser’s admiring review of Beckett from 1956 – Beckett ‘uses his enormous skill to reduce readers to a state of tired disgust and exasperated boredom’ – and to comment that this is a long way from the aesthetics of the fiction reviewers of the 1920s and 1930s. Literature had become more important to more people than ever before in history, and the numbers provide the evidence: in 1950, the paper sold an average of 49,061 copies, its highest ever.
In this postwar environment, the TLS began to present a new kind of writing, one of stiffened scholarship and greater rigour. This was the era of Pevsner, Namier, E.H. Carr, D.W. Brogan, A.J.P. Taylor, Anthony Blunt and Noel Annan, all regular reviewers for the TLS (though the old, cosy TLS reappeared in 1946 when Russell’s History of Western Philosophy was sent to J.B. Hawkins, the vicar of Esher). May notes two milestones in the paper’s steady modernising: a review by Rose Macaulay (‘later Dame Rose Macaulay’, as May bowingly nudges us) of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s Manservant and Maidservant in 1947, the first time that a new English novel had been given a full page piece to itself; and the editorship of Alan Pryce-Jones (1948-59), during which the paper ‘became a serious, modern, intellectual journal’, and developed its willingness to comment freely about world events, something it has continued to do very well under its now departing editor, Ferdinand Mount.
May’s book ends with some good anecdotes. I liked his remarks about Nicolas Walter, the great epistolary rationalist, who was an editor at the TLS until contributors began to complain that he was randomly adding the names of famous anarchists to their pieces. May’s control of his material crumbles a little as he covers the theory wars of the 1980s and 1990s. Stanley Fish is oddly linked to something called ‘pragmaticism’. But May does deliver the piquant information that the TLS was for a while so mistrusted by literary theorists that Martin Walker of the Guardian was dispatched in the hope of writing a piece that would expose ‘a vast Murdochian conspiracy to purify Eng-Lit of structuralists and leftists, with the TLS as the spearhead of a Thatcherite purge among the intellectuals’.
If reviewing, like criticism, is still the formal discourse of an amateur (to use Blackmur’s phrase) there is no doubt that the huge infusion of academic reviewers has tightened the average book review, has made it a more wakeful, learned, and philosophically acute vessel. And literary theory has contributed to that new philosophical sophistication, even if some of us might have learned this sophistication from its enactment in modern literature before we were told about it by literary theory. As Stevens has it, ‘the absence of the imagination/ had itself to be imagined.’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.