'The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England since 1918', by D.J. Taylor - Review

By Hamilton, Ben | The Spectator, January 2, 2016 | Go to article overview

'The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England since 1918', by D.J. Taylor - Review


Hamilton, Ben, The Spectator


John Gross's The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life since 1800 , a standard text for anyone set on a life of writing about books, was intentionally truncated, ending its chronology before Gross's own time of eminence. Two decades after the book's publication in 1969, Gross explained in a new afterword that he had not wanted to comment on his peers and colleagues, for fear of misunderstanding or offence. A perfectly justifiable approach, but it made the book uncomfortably tantalising for those who prefer their gossip to be at the expense of the living.

The Prose Factory is dedicated to Gross, and partially overlaps with The Rise and Fall , beginning in 1918. It appears at first to be a capacious project, taking in the rise of the paperback and the bestseller, Bloomsbury, Grub Street and academe. This is a book about literary life in England, not the United Kingdom or the English-speaking world (the United States is a place that sends cheques to English writers for their stories); and, as the book's title suggests, Taylor is interested in production more than inspiration. He is against what he calls 'Olympianism', as typified by F.R. Leavis and his followers. J.C. Squire, the most well-connected man of the interwar scene and 'one of the great bogey figures of recent English literature', is more Taylor's speed, as is Hugh Walpole, 'an unmourned casualty of the 1930s culture wars', whose early career 'was a kind of object lesson in how to get on'.

Taylor's key contribution is his emphasis on the practical, mercantile aspects of living by the pen. Three chapters are dedicated to how writers have earned -- or failed to earn -- a living. It is comforting, in its way, to find that brutally unfair disparities in fame and fortune have almost always been the rule, with the arguable exception being the late 1980s, when celebrity authors felt empowered to ask for big advances and newspapers started to fatten up (by 1988 the Sunday Time s literary section was an entire supplement, 16 pages long, with a staff of five). Reminiscences of a time when money flowed and critics had elbow room is nostalgia for an historical hiccup rather than an era.

Running through it all is the unstable status of the jobbing English writer. The 'dressing-gowned drudge', buried in proof copies and ashtrays, cannot easily be reconciled with 'those moneyed young beasts who glide so gracefully from Eton to Cambridge and from Cambridge to the literary review', as George Orwell puts it in Keep the Aspidistra Flying . …

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