Saturday, February 24, 2007

Critical Cultures

Perhaps inevitably the Guardian, having absently referred to Martin Amis as possibly our greatest living writer, decided a more scientific approach was needed. Yep, they asked the audience! Or rather anyone they could get on phone/email the day before the article, with the winners being Pinter, Stoppard, Lessing and Naipaul. Its always a spurious pastime this one, like looking for the world's oldest person, as soon as they find one, they die. Lets hope those 4 have a little more life left in them. We might be best just sticking with the nobel winning Pinter, currently being revived for his little masterpiece "Dumb Waiter" (a version of which I saw at the Edinburgh festival 2 years ago and loved). With 123 comments on their blog and counting, I'm hardly wanting to add to the spurious conversation. What interested me more was the somewhat degraded critical culture we have nowadays. I guess when questions such as this got asked in the past, there was a sense that (a) literature mattered, (b) that its finest practitioners were something more than "mere" writers and (c) the whole culture benefitted from acknowledging these collosi. For a start...writer of what? The "accident" of our greatest writer, Shakespeare being a playwright, has perhaps given playwrighting a little more kudos than it deserves. I can read Pinter's plays, and one or two others, but Stoppard, despite being such a verbaliser certainly needs the active stage. In fact, seeing "Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead" last week, I was struck by, despite it being an assured performance, what a period piece it risked becoming, and mostly it was the reverance for every one of Stoppard's weaker pieces of wordplay. He was a young writer, when he wrote it, and I felt he was ill-served by the too faithful version. Yet, if a playwright isn't known by his words, then how important a writer is he? And if a playwright, why not a screenwriter? I don't think an American audience would be claiming great literariness for Tarantino, or even Robert Townes, yet the film or the the TV play seems more vital to our culture than the theatre. That leaves just poetry and fiction; the first having so little cultural power in the UK, whilst the latter being so market-driven, that its hard to make a case for most practitioners of either. (And I'd say there are very few who write both poetry and prose to a consistently high level.) And then what is "English" in this context? The Irish writer? The commonwealth writer? The stateless writer? Again, its the Booker definitition of anyone but the Americans but also including those domiciled here. Born or living in Britain (make that London) and they're a British writer it seems. Which, given our love of Conrad, Eliot, Pound and James, never mind sundry Irishmen, seems only fair. But then we have the arguments that make those of us who occasionally still care about English literature scream; namely, the votes for writers who are children's writers (Rowling and Pullman), or commercial writers (bloody John Le Carre again), or this year's thing (Zadie, David Mitchell, Sarah Waters.) Any argument that can include all these different criteria clearly needs a good look at the question. Probably Alvarez, that unfashionable type of writer - a good critic - puts it best, "greatness has to do with range - and character....There has to be some kind of moral force in great writing...and an inward quality that shows in the rhythm of the prose." By this description (as good as one that we'll find), the thriller writers, the children's writers, the young writers, and the like wouldn't even enter the argument. Alvarez wouldn't apply the word "great" to any British living writer. It's hard to disagree.

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