Pleasing Themselves: Clive James, Peter Ackroyd and J M Coetzee Are among Numerous Writers to Have Published Collections of Literary Journalism This Year. but What Is the Point of Such Books? Does Anyone Read Them?

By Taylor, D. J. | New Statesman (1996), December 17, 2001 | Go to article overview

Pleasing Themselves: Clive James, Peter Ackroyd and J M Coetzee Are among Numerous Writers to Have Published Collections of Literary Journalism This Year. but What Is the Point of Such Books? Does Anyone Read Them?


Taylor, D. J., New Statesman (1996)


One of the funniest scenes in Anthony Powell's Books Do Furnish a Room (1971) - funny, that is, to anyone who writes about books for a living - takes place in the immediate postwar era at the party to launch the monthly magazine Fission. Among the guests are a brace of celebrated literary critics, Bernard Shernmaker and Nathaniel Sheldon. Shernmaker is a lofty grey eminence, a kind of lay version of Professor John Carey. Sheldon is a bouncing tabloid hack. Publishers, we are informed by Powell's narrator, Nick Jenkins, debate endlessly the question of whether Shernmaker or Sheldon "sold" any of the books they discussed.

"The majority view was that no sales could take place in consequence of Sheldon's notices, because none of his readers read books. Shernmaker's readers, on the other hand, read books, but his scraps of praise were so niggardly to the writers he scrutinised that he was held by some to be an equally ineffective medium. It was almost inconceivable for a writer to bring off the double-event of being mentioned, far less praised, by both of them."

Neither Shernmaker (who offers young writers "guarded encouragement, tempered with veiled threats") nor Sheldon may shift any product, but there is an essential difference between them, a distinction that holds good even 50 years after the period Powell was elegising. Certain kinds of critics (the Shernmaker kind) get their reviews parcelled up in book form, to be reviewed by other Shernmakers; other kinds of critics (Sheldon's kind) do not.

But perhaps one ought to start by defining terms. What do you call the pieces of prose - customarily, but not always, and often only notionally, attached to a book - that appear together with two or three dozen close relatives in volumes entitled Odds and Ends or Miscellaneous Trifles, or, if the writer happens to be a notably grand literary personage, Selected Essays 1963-? An essay? A review? And what constitutes the piece of writing itself? The sort of thing that gets printed in the culture section of the Sunday Times? The sort of thing that I am writing here? In the preface to his current selection, Pleasing Myself (Allen Lane, The Penguin Press) - a title faultlessly characteristic of the genre, it must be said - Professor Frank Kermode takes the trouble to consider exactly what force he sets in motion every couple of months in the hospitable pages of the London Review of Books, and decides that there is something called the "review essay", a bit longer than the average newspaper hand-wave and a bit shor ter than the usual academic grind. Somewhat surprisingly, given the economic constraints of modern-day publishing (who, one wonders, actually buys a book like Pleasing Myself?), the form - if indeed it is a form - survives.

The disadvantages of rounding up the stray literary journalism of several decades, usually on more than several themes, declare themselves in almost all of this autumn's offerings in the genre. Procedural tics that would go unnoticed over 20 pages become obsessions at 200 pages: I left Michael Hofmann's Behind the Lines: pieces on writing and pictures (Faber and Faber) - and Hofmann is always worth reading when found in a weekly magazine - with only a vague feeling that the author admired the poetry of Robert Lowell. Idiosyncrasies of tone begin to grate. For example, the fragments collected in Reliable Essays: the best of Clive James (Jonathan Cape) are possibly a bit too reliable: about halfway through, one gets the measure of James's relentless ironising, his habits, his flaws, not least his irritating trick of training remorseless hindsight on the hot productions of his youth. Having read an essay on Malcolm Muggeridge, first rolled out in 1981, and reflected that it was the best demolition of Mugg's pret ensions I had ever encountered, I was faintly peeved to come across a postscript suggesting that this is exactly what James himself thinks.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Pleasing Themselves: Clive James, Peter Ackroyd and J M Coetzee Are among Numerous Writers to Have Published Collections of Literary Journalism This Year. but What Is the Point of Such Books? Does Anyone Read Them?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.