A Poke in the Eye for Literary Criticism

By Walsh, John | The Independent (London, England), June 25, 2010 | Go to article overview
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A Poke in the Eye for Literary Criticism

Walsh, John, The Independent (London, England)


Craig Raine and Terry Eagleton are distinguished literary gents embroiled in a critical spat. It began when Eagleton reviewed - or should I say dismembered, flayed alive and danced on the twitching corpse of - Raine's first novel, Heartbreak, in the London Review of Books. He attacked the author's imagery ("plenty of stuff to keep Pseuds' Corner busy for months"), dialogue ("a notably tin ear for human speech",) and stylistic fondness for visual simile ("There is much rustling of the author's Things I Saw Today That Look A Bit Like Other Things notebook") before getting stuck into the structure. Displaying an impressive familiarity with low culture, Eagleton says "the publishers have represented [the book] as a novel, rather as Jedward are represented as singers". Ooh, you bitch.

Raine, a poet, Oxford don and editor of the literary magazine Arete, cattily responded: "I really enjoyed not reading Terry Eagleton's review, almost as much as he enjoyed not reading my novel... He is reading it with a squint - from where I have poked him in the eye in the past."

Raine is an experienced eye-poker. Arete has for years performed sleek hatchet jobs, sometimes on writers (such as Derek Walcott) whom Raine published when poetry editor at Faber. Eagleton has relished vicious fights, in the last decade, with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Amis pere et fils.

I remember both men before they were like this. In 1970s Oxford, Eagleton was a familiar figure for one reason - wearing his Bob Dylan-style forage cap, he used to stand on the corner of Broad and Holywell Streets selling copies of Red Mole, the underground magazine. He didn't sell many, but spent his time defending his position as a Catholic Marxist don to argumentative politics students. He'd published two minor works on modern literature and "new left theology" and cultivated earnest young students. I remember him as a charming fellow, who relished dispute (in his weirdly Eric Morecambe voice) and sought to synthesise ideas and convert sceptics.

Raine was a tutor at my college, where he was rigorous about students getting things right - spotting this allusion, tracing this theme, identifying that sexual image. He was stroppy, subversive and funny, but his main concern was to persuade students that literature was serious, that it contained vivid secrets to be teased out by astute analysis.

Now both men, Eagleton, 67, and Raine, 65, like to be known, above all, as professional eye-pokers, name-callers, hair-pullers and bitch-slappers. It doesn't seem quite the career peak of which either man would have dreamt.

Seasonal sounds with a transatlantic bias

Outside, the sun is scorching. Dazed-looking chaps are wandering down Kensington High Street with no tops on. Sales of straw hats are going through the roof. And those great summer songs are on everyone's lips: "Summer in the City", "Surfin' USA", "The Boys of Summer", "Dancing in the Street", "Summer Breeze", "Up On the Roof", "Summertime Blues", "Summer of '69", "Girls in Their Summer Clothes".

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