Sunday, April 08, 2018

Canon, class and critical culture

When poetry makes it onto the news, its never about the poetry, despite Pound's assertion that it is "news that stays news." I refrained from commenting at the time on the article in P.N. Review where Rebecca Watts, on being asked to review a poetry collection by Holly McNish, from Picador, decides instead to question poetry's broad church and the poetry world's unwillingness to embrace both excellence and access. I broadly agreed with Watts' article, and didn't really notice, to be honest, that she had been a little impolite to McNish, and had singled out a group of young female poets for her approbation. These two things: the sense of an attack on McNish, and the female-target became central to the kerfuffle that had followed. Poets, though they might disagree amongst themselves and in private, are almost apologetically polite in print, particularly when a new collection comes out. After all, you never know who might review yours further down the line.

Yet, a couple of months on, it seems that the thrust of Watts' argument - that poetry should not be apologetic about being an artform; that the imprimatur of prestigious presses and editors and prizes supporting poetry that (perhaps only on the page) falls short of this (in some people's opinion); and the unwillingness to accept that critical culture requires not just to like, but to dislike, are things that should have been debated. It has been interesting as well that the poets and commentators I've spoke to defending Holly McNish or Kate Tempest's work have also been annoyed that Watts lumped them in with Rupi Kaur, the popular "instagram" poet. It has always seemed to me - from themed national poetry days, to poetry for all - that "dumbing down" will always lead to this kind of thing. There have been plenty of writers of light verse over the years who have never been taken seriously as poets, but have given much joy, from Rod McKeun to Pam Ayres. As for the cluster of female poets (being looked at by a female writer), that seems a bit of bad luck; but to be fair to McNish, one wonders whether a new collection by Lemn Sissay or Luke Wright would have been at least given the veneer of a serious review?

Somehow this debate spilled over into a "high art vs low art" debate, and that this was an attack on "working class poets". Despite McNish having a pretty high-end education of her own. McNish is a successful performer who makes a living from her writing. and probably came out of this the better, in the short term, however disappointing it can be for any writer to have their work dismissed out of hand. In the past, of course, there was an easy response to this: write better, write more seriously. It's interesting how snobbish the poetry world has been in the past about incomers - compared to those grown under its own networks and imprints. Mark Haddon, who had one of the most successful novels of recent years, released a book of his poetry to indifference from the poetry world; Felix Dennis, the publisher, and not a million miles from Michael Horowitz and other late beats in world view and style, paid for his own books and tours, before his death - cheerfully telling audiences that the wine was free, if they only turned up; Iain Banks' posthumous collection was received with a respectful silence (and Banks was published alongside his friend Ken Macleod, well aware that an occasional poet who is already a well known novelist could face plenty of ridicule from the once meticulous poetry establishment.) Money talks of course, and just as Faber has benefited from Lloyd Webber's astonishingly successful "Cats", most big publishers with a poetry list can benefit from any unexpected poetry "hits".

Yet the sense prevails that there is not so much a critical culture in British letters, that is interested in identifying, encouraging and perhaps even being surprised by excellence, but an old boy's (and increasingly old girl's) network of interconnections fostered through the BBC, small presses and the like. It would seem somewhat astonishing that McNish would be asked to be the judge on the "Golden Booker" for books that won this decade until you remember that, yes, she has a good education, is an experienced broadcaster, and so is probably capable of commentating meaningful on recent novels and that one of the other judges is the "broadcaster and novelist" Simon Mayo. (I didn't know, but Mayo has published three novels for young adults.) It strikes me that McNish has the easier task of the two - as the Booker winners since 2010 haven't really been that outstanding - with the exception of Marlon James' highly original "A Brief History in Seven Killings." Mayo has "The Life of Pi", "Vernon God Little", "The Line of Beauty", "Wolf Hall" and "The White Tiger" to play with. The Mantel seems the supreme work of literary art of the era, to my mind so it will be interesting to see.

Which brings us neatly(-ish) to this week's TLS. Alex Clark has a three page spread on what they are calling "the new Elizabethans" - i.e. what is the contemporary canon. It attempts to do two things. To list those writers who are currently writing at the top of their game; and to identify those writers who have written the best work since the turn of the century. Its not mentioned explicitly, but these rules are surely to discount the Amis, Barnes, McEwan, Rushdie generation without actually saying so. That said, the list of the "top ten" includes such young bucks as Kazuo Ishiguro, Hilary Mantel and Alan Hollinghurst.

When we talk about "canon" we run into so much historical precedence. We have the "Harvard Classics" - where fiction was originally excluded in favour of philosophy letters and the like at the start of the last century, but was eventually added to - a canon aimed squarely at the aspiring working class or middle class reader who hadn't been to university but wanted to understand the New York papers' culture pages. This list stands up reasonably well, with its mix of American, British and European classics.  If most literary scenes and movements have a tendency to kick the cultural can down the road a bit, simply echoing previous models but in a different way, Modernism crushed the can underfoot and insisted on a new can, that may or may not be much use as can in the expected way. F.R. Leavis and other critics had something to say about a new canon. I think it is interesting that the TLS didn't even go near poetry or drama or non-fiction in its attempt to see what a new "canon" might look like. Yet this seems a mistake: for a literary or cultural landscape needs more than fields of barley, it requires some unloved clumps of bushes, some awkward hills, some wayward streams. More recently, borne on his enthusiasm and reacting against the theorists, we had Harold Bloom, a Casaubon of the reviewing world, who in "The Western Canon" tried to knit everything together in a way that only the massively read Bloom could have done.

Alex Clark writes about this being the start of the conversation - so I guess think of this blog as being part of that. An aside; a few years ago on the list of cultural commentators invited to speak about something you'd have been surprised not to have found a blogger or two. I'd imagine they might still be there; but more likely also writing for this or that paper. The blog community offered a chance to write and talk about books in a different way. It seemed to offer both a push-button publishing platform and a collective conversation. The former is still true: it still is the easiest way to get things online; but the latter has been overtaken by the closed networks of commentariat that you find on Facebook and elsewhere. Comments on this blog have slowed to a trickle, even if I hope it still has a small readership.

Clark mentions a few of the submitters to the TLS list - and there is some interesting detail in the article. The title - "the new Elizabethans" - seems bizarre, even insulting. It's not only Heaney who would grunt that his "passport's green" - particularly on a list that has bit of a new Irish renaissance feel to it. Surely a Queen who is coming towards the end of her long reign is not the right way to define this group of 21st century writers who are all formed by the 20th century? Like all lists you wonder about the omissions. The most glaring to me would be David Mitchell, whose work since "Ghostwritten" has been the most refreshing and inventive of English novelists. It strikes me that there are writers on the list who haven't actually written a standout novel. Mitchell seems to have written at least two: "Cloud Atlas" and "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet". They would sit alongside "Wolf Hall", "If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things", "The Carhullan Army", "Day", "Five Miles from Outer Hope", "Three to See the King", "Vault", "The Damned United". "The City and the City" , "The Book of Dave",  "First Novel", "A Long, Long Way", "Life after Life" and " A Girl is a Half Formed Thing" as standout British and Irish novels of the last few years. Some of these books are undoubtedly personal rather than universal favourites: at the same time there are writers I like (Zadie Smith) where there's not a stand out novel for me and acclaimed writers I can't get on with (Ali Smith, Colm Toibin).

On the other hand it does stand as a different way of looking at things than the Granta lists of "20 under 40". Writers are getting older. Success is coming later. In some ways, the novel as a cultural touchstone seems less important than before - yet this week sees a TV adaption of word of mouth classic "The City and the City" by China Mieville; Ishiguro's Nobel prize probably owed as much to his (flawed, but emotionally wrenching) "Never Let Me Go", as it did "Remains of the Day"; books like "The Girls", "Nocturnal Animals", "Fight Club",  "The God of Small Things", "We'd better talk about Kevin", "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time" have had a resonance beyond the book pages.

Inevitably, in these discussions, that other "renaissance" - the short story - feels a little squeezed out. Very few shorts will have the cultural after life of "Cat Person", but with some of the best contemporary writing taking place in that medium, its good to see novelists who have also written great shorts (Zadie Smith, Jon McGregor, Hilary Mantel) on the list.

It's interesting though: because any conversation about canon immediately goes into what's good or what's bad. I have a first edition of Quiller-Couch's "Oxford Book of English  Poetry", and the canon is pretty set by 1900 or so when it appeared - up until 1850. But the last fifty years are full of sub-Tennyson, sub-Browning late Victorians that were - presumably, the most esteemed peers of that generation. We are yet to see Hopkins; Hardy's poetry; or the forthcoming Modernists. A revised edition at the turn of this century struggles with our own recent past. It seems that the crowd-sourced list here has its problems even whittling down to a "Top 20! novelists. Recent poetry surveys by Nathan Hamilton and Roddy Lumsden have been catholic in their choices: all must win prizes. We live it seems in an era of literary abundance, and yet sales are in crisis, writers livelihoods are precarious. Twas ever thus, of course, but it seems that there needs to be a critical culture that is in and of itself not just a gatekeeper, but can be a revolving watch - so that its not just the same old suspects.

Much of the interesting work in literature always happens at the margins, in small press magazines and in small run novels and collections. There are times when the "indies" are actually more conservative than the "majors" seeing that certain neglected writers have fallen out of fashion. At the moment there seems a general vibrancy. Yet a critical culture needs to reflect this. Ironically, it is book prizes, with their egalatarian judging that has levelled the playing field. McBride's "A Girl is a Half Formed Thing" is famously the novel that got away; until the small Galley Beggar press published it. It seems remarkable - here is a woman who can clearly write, on both a small scale in terms of subject but a grand scale in terms of her ambition - and yet the gatekeepers couldn't see that. These "feeder presses" only exist out of love and enthusiasm, and a little bit of funding. Readership is what keeps them going of course in a way that isn't really an issue for a major press that has so many "banker" brands.

As someone who has always loved literature, but also reading about literary life, I'm a sucker for lists, for canons. It's hard to identify, as I get older, writers that I look out for their next book from the new ones coming along. There have been a lot of over-hyped disappointments over the years. One still hopes that old favourites might have a late career masterpiece in them, like a hurdler winning their final race at Aintree. As someone who has always been primarily influenced and inspired by American fiction, I think the list of British and Irish books I posted above is a pretty good crop, comparable with any other period of British letters I can think of.  Of course, the middle class novel is still alive and well; and the ongoing complacency of those assumptions - both class and generational based - are frustrating. But I worry that the fast culture of social media, and of a generation of academics who are seeing culture (not just literature) through a lens of cultural and social theory remains antithetical to the kind of brave, consistent, outward facing writing I want to see and read. The TLS is clearly trying to start a debate: its likely to be quite a rarified one. I wonder how many of the 200 who responded to its call for suggestions were frustrated by the somewhat "usual suspects" nature of the list? Is a canon something that is - therefore - agreed on, collectively, or something that can be pushed through a particular lens, a particular perspective (such as Leavis, such as Bloom)?

I began talking about poetry as a way into this topic - but I think its somewhat the same thing.  There is nothing controversial in the art world about dismissal of the popular painter Jake Vettriano for instance. Had we got a critical culture of any worth, then there would be no need to diss McNish or whoever, but rather to review them within their own cultural frame; it is that reframing that puts people's backs up. I've seen it in the past when people have commented on YA fiction or detective fiction or similar. These are old, somewhat pointless debates. Yet there is a desire out there for good work; even if we sometimes don't see it. The bookshops - Waterstones, but also the indies - are doing better than they were; the e-book threat seems to have passed; publishers - small and big - are upping their game on design at least; writers, of which I am one, of which there are many, are finding ways to continue writing. At some point you hope that this coalesces into something that is less prone to stagnation or vested interests. For now, we have the conversation. Which is perhaps a start.


Tim Love said...

William Logan in the States was involved in a poetry vs the masses debate where people quickly took sides - see

As a PR device, lists seem to work, and some genres need all the help they can get. Since you like lists, my indie-baised guess at the 20 NextGen story writers is Elizabeth Baines, Colin Barrett, Carys Bray, Stuart Evers, David Gaffney, Vanessa Gebbie, Sarah Hall, Tania Hershman, Adam Marek, Danielle McLaughlin, Alison Moore, K.J. Orr, Angela Readman, David Rose, Tom Vowler

Adrian Slatcher said...

Nice list Tim