The Fluctuations of William Golding's Critical Reputation

By Doering, Jonathan W. | Contemporary Review, May 2002 | Go to article overview

The Fluctuations of William Golding's Critical Reputation


Doering, Jonathan W., Contemporary Review


AS an aspiring Ph.D. student in 1998, I asked myself which writers I had read extensively, which I had always enjoyed and in whose works I had always found something new when I returned to them. From a dwindling list, William Golding emerged. I had read his Lord of the Flies twice in a matter of weeks whilst studying it for secondary school English, heralding a deep fascination with the man and his work. As I re-read the books and prepared my thesis application, it struck me with renewed vigour that I had chosen wisely: each text is a departure for the reader; to me, what makes Golding great is his refusal to follow any party line, to present a powerful story which, although moving, does not move the reader into a certain perspective. You must always make up your own mind.

During the time since then, trawling through the critical work on Golding, I have become aware of the nagging truth that the key to what makes him such a great writer contributed during his career to a fluctuation in the reception his work received on publication. He was in some sense one of the awkward squad', and his perceived awkwardness led to miscomprehension and condemnation in some quarters. In a historical sense, this refusal to conform to any particular paradigm has ensured Golding a place in the pantheon of writers who will be remembered long beyond their own times. Yet, I cannot rid myself of the notion that we are tremendously lucky to have Golding at all. In its 25 March 2001 edition, The Independent on Sunday ran a dispiriting article, announcing that many major publishing houses were reducing or doing away with their system of readers entirely. The reasons offered included the expense, and the relatively few successes discovered with this method. As such literary forces as Roddy Doyle, J. K. Ro wling, and William Golding (to name only a few) climbed out of the publishing slush pile, I would beg to differ. Add to this Linda Grant's recent comments in The Guardian about a trend towards publishing younger, more photogenic authors, and the success of the Nobel Laureate winner, Golding, starts to appear near miraculous.

A modest provincial schoolmaster pushing middle age, Golding only had a small collection of poetry (which he later all but disowned) to his credit when his manuscript, Strangers from Within, did the rounds of twenty publishers before a reader at Faber and Faber recommended that his employers follow suit. However a young editor called Charles Monteith saw possibilities, and asked Golding to make changes. The resulting novel, Lord of the Flies, was published in 1954, and very quickly received great acclaim: by the 1960s it was being taught on campuses on both sides of the Atlantic. (It was even advised reading for Peace Corps volunteers). Demonstrably, Golding had served his apprenticeship in writing; he had learnt that one must write books for oneself first and foremost. One former pupil remembers that he had written three or four books before Lord of the Flies, which were 'a cross between Kipling and Alistair MacLean'.

As these manuscripts were returned repeatedly without a flicker of interest, Golding began to write less with an eye to popular publication, a process that would bring him publication, celebrity, condemnation, and literary greatness. His work ranges over a wide variety of subjects: desert islands; the dawn of humanity; the Second World War, both at land and at sea; the medieval English Church; early twentieth century English country life; the Ancient World (Egypt, Rome, Africa); a nineteenth century ship of the line; a meditation on good and evil in modern Britain; a contemporary novelist's headlong fleeing from academic mummification; and the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. His style and structure varies as well: often seen as a dark and pessimistic writer, his tone can also by turns be light-hearted as well as serious-minded. He also employs various narrative techniques: first-person, third person, third-person indirect, omnipotent, diary, and epistolary forms, to achieve his desired effects. …

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