Sunday, April 22, 2012

Critics And Enemies Of Promise

This appeared in today's The Sunday Guardian

Critics can’t write good novels. This is as it should be, I suppose, given that the faculties required are quite different. As always, there are exceptions, and in this case John Updike is the notable one. Not only did he write more than 30 novels and short story collections, he contributed regularly to publications such as The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books: these pieces were later published in fat volumes from Odd Jobs to the posthumous Higher Gossip.

On the other hand, take James Wood, the influential critic who’s won his fair share of admirers as well as detractors for championing realism in fiction. When he tried his hand at a novel, the results were middling. The Book Against God, published in 2003, was a sensitive but dour story of a vicar’s son grappling with theological questions. Not many ripples ensued.

The one critic who obsessed more than most about his inability to produce a sterling novel was Cyril Connolly, eminent man of letters and editor of the literary journal, Horizon, in the England of the Thirties and Forties. For years, all I’d read of Connolly was the infamous quote that seemed to be the only thing that outlived him: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”. Connolly’s seminal Enemies of Promise – a book that, shamefully, I only just read – is where that quote is from; as I discovered, the book’s aphoristic nature, delightful though it may be, isn’t the only reason to read it.

At first glance Enemies of Promise seems neither fish nor fowl: about half of it is an analysis of contemporary fiction and pitfalls that await the would-be writer, and the second half is a memoir of Connolly’s youth. However – as Connolly himself mentioned – there are clear correspondences. The magisterial critique of the one is made resonant by the personal tone of the other. Thus, the book can be read as an investigation of the reasons why he – such a promising young fellow– was unable to come up with a novel of worth. Or, as he put it, “a didactic enquiry into the problem of how to write a book which lasts ten years”. (The one novel Connolly wrote, The Rock Pool, was judged unwieldy and uneven: he had difficulty finding a publisher. As he wrote in Enemies of Promise: “Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising”)

I must admit I found myself skipping paragraphs, especially those containing references to writers of his time, many of whom are not so well-known nowadays. Many judgments, though, are spot on: “Contemporary books do not keep. The quality in them that makes for their success is the first to go; they turn overnight”. There’s praise for E.M. Forster; more patrician is the comment on Virginia Woolf, who has “the ability to spin cocoons of language out of nothing” (though he lauds The Waves). There’s also his famous classification of prose styles into the Mandarin and the Vernacular, with Henry James being an example of the former, Hemingway of the latter. Overall, “I do not say one is better than the other; there is much to admire in both; what I have claimed is a relationship between them”.

His litany of traps lying in wait for the novelist  -- from money to success to domesticity -- still rings true, as does his discussion of professions that sap the will of the artist-in-waiting, among them teaching, journalism and advertising. (He would, no doubt, have reacted with alarm to Twitter and Facebook.)

Much of this is made personal in what follows: childhood, the hated early days at Eton and the later more-at-ease time there. (Among his classmates was a boy who came to be known as George Orwell: “I was a stage rebel, Orwell a true one”.)

A cultural critique; an analysis of why he couldn’t write the book he wanted to; autobiographical musings; an unusual mirroring structure: why, had the tone been different, it could almost have been written by Geoff Dyer. Hold on, he’s already done that, hasn’t he?


Luv said...

In our Indian writers, I think both Agyaya and Muktibodh have written great critical essays. Would love to hear your opinion of them.


Unknown said...

That's interesting...will try to seek them out.

John Doe said...

Well some great writers have also been great critics (though only a few). The names of S. T. Coleridge and T. S. Eliot comes to mind. Both have the letters T and S in their initials, by the way. Maybe I should change my name too.

Unknown said...

Coleridge, Eliot, of course. And yes, your name does sound familiar...