Defending Literary Criticism; Sorting the Good, the Bad and the Overly Long

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In the June issue of "The New Criterion"- where most of the reviews in this book first appeared-Brooke Allen defended the activity of literary criticism. "Critics have always been regarded . . . as a species of cultural parasite, and are sometimes obliged to justify their activities to a public that deifies the creative imagination at the expense of what they see as arid intellectualism," she wrote. Criticism is important she noted because "a culture amounts to a sort of extended conversation, and conversation demands response and commentary as well as declarative statements."

Well, yes. But a more practical function of reviewers is to provide the reader with enough information to answer the question: "Do I want to buy this book?" Ms. Allen admirably performs this task in her review of Christopher Isherwood's diaries, one of the 18 essays collected in "Twentieth-Century Attitudes." When she tells readers that at least half the diaries consist of "repetitious and uninteresting material," that the book is 900 pages long and that this is only volume one, I know that this is a tome I will never buy.

Why oh why when busy people have less and less time for reading, does the publishing industry continue to issue whole forests of biographies, diaries, journals and correspondence weighing in at 600 pages or more when 300-400 pages would do the job as well if not better? (At 300 or so pages, V.S. Pritchett's biography of Anton Chekhov remains a model of brevity and scholarship.) Ms. Allen makes the point that "yet another Waugh biography, this time more than 600 pages, would not seem to be a strict necessity" and she's right, especially as the one under review, by Selena Hastings, came hard on the heels of Martin Stannard's well-received two-volume biography.

Most of the biographies Ms. Allen reviewed here are too long for my taste. Just the thought of carrying one around makes me feel tired: Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf (760 pages), Margaret Drabble's biography of Angus Wilson (714 pages), James Atlas on Saul Bellow (688 pages), and Judith Thurman on Colette (592 pages). Ms. Allen has dutifully plowed through them all (and related works besides), saving us the trouble of doing so. And her diligence pays off. One of the delicious nuggets she has extracted from the Hastings biography is a remark by Waugh's father about Evelyn's enigmatic wife Laura (a puzzle not only to scholars but to everyone who knew her):

"I don't know whether she has a very strong character, & is able to keep all her feelings to herself; or whether she is a case of arrested development, soothed by Papal dope."

The lead essay on Colette sets the tone for the entire collection: an agreeable mix of biographical background and astute literary judgment with a dash of gossip. Naturellement Colette's scandalous goings-on made her a subject of gossip all her life. A string of lesbian lovers, a stint in vaudeville, and an affair with her teenage stepson when she was nearly 50 were merely the highlights of a distinctly checkered career, catalogued with relish by Ms. Allen.

Strangely, after her death Colette, like Virginia Woolf, became an icon of late twentieth century feminism, though neither was a feminist. …