The Last Writes: There Is Neither the Money nor the Space to Sustain a Career as a Full-Time Book Reviewer. D J Taylor Mourns the Slow Death of the Man of Letters

By Taylor, D. J. | New Statesman (1996), October 12, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Last Writes: There Is Neither the Money nor the Space to Sustain a Career as a Full-Time Book Reviewer. D J Taylor Mourns the Slow Death of the Man of Letters


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


As someone who makes his living entirely by the pen, I approached the character of R Tranter in Sebastian Faulks's new novel, A Week in December, with great interest and not a little envy--the envy of the writer fetched up alongside someone working in the same field who is clearly doing a great deal better than he is. Tranter, a score-settling fortysomething who lives alone in a seedy flat with a cat called Septimus Harding, is, for example, allowed to write simultaneously for two Sunday newspapers (a privilege that no self-respecting literary editor would ever dream of conceding). He is, in addition, supposed to make [pounds sterling]30,000 a year simply by reviewing books. And then, during the novel's finale, in an act of munificence that would have had the Cheerybles in Nicholas Nickleby shaking their heads, his chief editorial sponsor hands him a contract worth [pounds sterling]25,000 a year with the proviso that "you can only write about the 19th century".

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It is that final caveat which establishes Tranter's unreality for all time. No book reviewer in England gets that kind of money, in those conditions, not even Professor John Carey, the Sunday Times books section's principal ornament these past 30 years and more. There is no one like him in modern Grub Street, and probably never was. Interestingly, the people who come closest to him, in habit, inclination and routine, are literary models such as Jasper Mil-vain, the thrusting young careerist of Gissing's New Grub Street (1891), or the anonymous drudge of Orwell's "Confessions of a Book Reviewer" (1946), settling down to appraise five fat and miscellaneous tomes, one of which is called Tribal Customs in Portuguese East Africa, in 800 words, while a pneumatic drill rumbles in the street and the staircase echoes to the boots of his creditors. And yet, in putting Tranter, with his hulking resentments and his shady backstage intrigues (and also, it should be pointed out, his thoroughgoing knowledge of contemporary writing), busily at work amid the pages of a supposedly realist novel, Faulks is also gesturing, with a certain amount of grudging respect, at one of English literature's most pervasive archetypes--the Man of Letters.

By chance, 2009 marks the 40th anniversary of possibly the most brilliant piece of literarycum-social criticism I have ever read: John Gross's The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters. Gross's chief area of concern is the literary culture of about 1800 to 1950--from the rise of the Quarterly reviewers, say, to F R Leavis and Scrutiny--but the epilogue takes the story up to the era of the Angry Young Men, Marshall McLuhan and the global village. As for the thing itself, Gross never offers an exact definition. His Man of Letters can range from a simple "bookman", snug in his study with 3,000 novels for company, to the kind of highbrow critic whose followers invest his cult with well-nigh religious significance, or the moonlighting MP who sees literature as a kind of default setting for his political schemes. What unites them is a passion for books, a fixation with the culture in which books get produced and evaluated, and an assumption that, as Gross puts it in his final sentence, "the idea of the man of letters has a place in any healthy literary tradition". This and the fact that, with one or two trend-defying exceptions, men of letters are as extinct as the passenger pigeon.

What had done for the Man of Letters in the 120 years since Carlyle--no less--included him in the ceremonial pantheon of On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History? Gross, with his keen eye for the cultural cross-currents of the immediately postwar era, has several explanations, ranging from literature's general retreat before a tide of newfangled mass entertainment to the whole McLuhan-esque take on popular culture and its "more aggressive counterattack on traditional literary standards in the name of the media". …

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