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. …