Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

"The Prose Factory" by D.J Taylor (Vintage, 2016)

Over 450 pages about literary life in England from 1918. In part it's a history of magazines (some with tiny circulations), and anthologies - Georgian Poetry, Criterion, Calendar of Modern Letters, Scrutiny, Horizon, Penguin New Writing, etc. There's a distrust of statistics (which in any case aren't likely to be too reliable) in favour of trying to catch the mood of the times via multiple mini-biographies. There's much about the ebb and flow of cronyism and elitism. Essays and "star reviewers" in the papers tried to bridge the gap between big names and the common reader. Then more opportunities for freelancers emerged - the BBC, US magazines. Newspaper reviewing improved in the 60s-70s though it's unclear to me why there are assessments of Peter Carey and James Wood. The treatment is mostly chronological, so in the same order here are some quotes -

  • "Books ... for all kinds of socio-economic reasons, were more fashionable in the later 1980s than they had been in the late 1970s" p.xvi
  • "The serious reading public of the 1830s and 1840s was tiny, consisting of no more than a few thousand people" p.xviii
  • "The late Victorian period ushered in an unprecedented phenomenon, a mass reading public. We many now want to add that this was both the first and the only mass reading public" - Philip Waller
  • "at the beginning of the twentieth century, the English people still liked poetry" - Penelope Fitzgerald
  • "An Etonian mafia was much in evidence in the late 1920s, whose members shamelessly reviewed each other's books" p.22
  • "the writer was a conspicuous figure in the 1920s media scrum, and, as a result, able to benefit from a degree of exposure otherwise extended only to a successful politician or sports personality" p.24
  • "by the mid-1920s - even earlier in sophisticated circles - 'Georgian' was a term of abuse" p.30 (too much bad poetry and too much hype)
  • "J.C. Squire ... remains one of the great bogey-figures of recent English literature, a byword for reputation-fixing, coterie politics and false standards" p.24 "Within three years of the war's end, ... Squire and his satellites had control, or at least substantial influence, over eight or more of the principal literary organs in Britain" p.39
  • "If literary modernism had a public face in the 1920s, it belonged - singly and collectively - to the Sitwells" p.52
  • "Eliot was its high priest" p.59
  • "Much popular awareness of newfangled developments in literature and the arts came through what was essentially comic disparagement" p.69
  • "A tightly run distribution network, able to talk up a particular book's chances, prepublication, with the major circulating libraries - W.H. Smith, Boots and Harrods - allowed Hodder to pull off what were, by the standards of the 1920s, extraordinary feats of salesmanship" p.82
  • "In an age when the matter of a writer's cultural affiliations loomed very large, Priestley (1894-1984), with his Georgian upbringing and his titanic sales, was always going to be a target for this sort of snootiness: what was really remarkable, as the decade wore on, was his emergence as a kind of all-purpose intellectual hate-figure, a symbol of degenerating public tastes and a byword for everything that was wrong with the contemporary novel" p.95
  • "the profound differences between the 1920s and 1930s as literary epochs were instantly apparent to the people caught up in them. At their most fundamental level, these changes were to do with the infiltration of left-wing politics into the literary mainstream" p.103
  • "The issues at stake in the literary in-fighting of the 1920s had largely been aesthetic ... In contrast the polarisation of attitudes that characterised the 1930s was firmly ideological" p.106
  • "By the mid-1930s most of the unemployment black spots in the north were home to a cluster of predominantly working-class writers ... As to why so many of the working-class writers of the period failed to achieve and kind of lasting success, the explanation very often lay neither in lack of talent, nor restricted range, but in the want of social and professional contacts" p.109
  • "Book publishing, having boomed in the early post-war period, then went into a sharp decline" p.142
  • "historically, very few writers - certainly very few 'serious' writers - have ever been able to support themselves by fiction alone" p.143
  • "the two most influential academics involved in the teaching of English literature in British Universities in 1918 were Sir Walter Raleigh (1861-1922) and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944)" p.155
  • "F.R. Leavis ... no academic teacher of English during the period 1930-60 was quite so influential or quite so widely resented" p.170
  • "Clearly in terms of medium and influence, the [2nd World] war belonged not so much to the poet or the short-story writer but to the man or woman who sponsored them: the editor" p.202
  • "the end of the Great War had a profoundly liberating effect on literature ... By contrast, the literary world of the later 1940s looked a stagnant affair" p.225
  • "One marked feature of the mid-twentieth-century marketplace was the collapse of the middlebrow literary magazine" p.247
  • "one of the truly striking characteristics of the 'serious' writers of the 1950s is how reluctant the majority of them were to commit themselves fully to literature" p.248
  • "the 'new man' is a feature of fiction in the 1950s" p.268
  • "Just as Stephen Spender had , in the 1930s, found himself regarded by the older, Georgian writers as a symbol of everything that was wrong with contemporary literature ... so in the 1950s he was singled out as ... 'the kind of poet who it was necessary to oppose'" p.272
  • "[in the mid-century] The anti-Victorian fires stoked in the 1920s ... had long since died down." p.288
  • "Far more so than the 1940s and the 1950s ... the 1960s and 1970s were an era in which the upmarket woman writer carried ... a great deal before her" p.328
  • "By the mid-1960s the total sum of something under £5000 [was given to literature by the Arts Council] ... The Literature Panel ... began its deliberations in January 1966" p.342
  • "In 1973-4, for example, out of the total [Arts Council] grant of £17 million, exactly £146,000 went to literature" p.342
  • "the New Fiction Society [was] a state-sanctioned book club offering newly published novels at discount prices ... a promising idea that failed spectacularly" (started in 1974-5) p.344
  • "The immense concentration of resources on the university teaching of English in the 1960s had two main consequences for literary culture. Most obviously, it began to professionalise and institutionalise literary criticism ... at the same time minimising its relevance to the greater part of the reading public" p.366
  • "the arts world of the 1960s increasingly came to be defined by its attitude to the burgeoning counter-culture" p.393
  • "By the early 1970s ... the writer was less of a public figure than he or she had been for perhaps a century and a half" p.394
  • "A few best-sellers aside (Betjeman, Hughes, Larkin) poetry was commercially negligible by the end of the 1970s" p.396
  • "The boom in 'serious' publishing that characterised the 1980s and early 1990s has no single cause ... The most obvious was the emergence of a new wave of English and Commonwealth novelists" p.397
  • "there was no denying Granta's success. This, in the context of literary magazine publishing, was simply unprecedented" p.400
  • "One dramatic effect of the early 1980s publishing revolution was a substantial increase in the amount of money available to an elite band of home-grown 'literary' novelists" p.425
  • "In the hot-house conditions of the 1980s ... the new power broker was the literary agent" p.438
  • "the two most significant developments with the capacity to alter the outward face that 'literature' presents to the world are the rise of creative writing MAs and the employment by university English departments of novelists and poems to teach them" p.447

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