Tuesday 29 November 2011

'A life beyond the grave of contemporary reputation...'

I've remarked before on the ludicrously extravagant praises heaped on mediocre, so-what fiction by today's reviewers. However, one thing they rarely do is predict a long life and enduring high reputation for the books they're puffing. Perhaps they are held back by some residual sense of proportion, even honesty, as they must know that, even in good times, only a tiny proportion of fiction lasts - and, in times like ours... Well, it's hard to imagine anything much from the past 20 years of English fiction lasting long.
Things were different in the interwar years, where it was a commonplace of criticism to declare which books would stand the test of time and still be read by future generations - and reviewers were pretty bold about it. Here's Desmond MacCarthy on Logan Pearsall Smith's All Trivia:
'I agree with those reviewers who have predicted for it a life beyond the grave of contemporary reputation. It is the sort of bibelot that Father Time often keeps on the mantelpiece when he changes the furniture in the house...' [they don't write them like that any more]
And here's Robert Lynd on the same subject: 'Many good critics believe that this is one of the few books of our time that will still be read a generation hence.'
Another writer who attracted confident predictions of literary immortality was Ivy Compton-Burnett. Here's Norman Shrapnel in The Guardian:
'Of the two candidates for greatness among comic novelists of our time, Evelyn Waugh and Ivy Compton-Burnett, it is her prospect that looks the more secure...'
And here's David Holloway in the Telegraph: 'It is always dangerous to prophesy immortality for any writer, but it is certain that Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels will be discussed a century hence.'
Dangerous indeed it is. Ivy Compton-Burnett's works are mostly out of print (scandalously), while Waugh posthumously thrives - as does the great comic novelist Shrapnel doesn't mention, P.G. Wodehouse. As for Logan Pearsall Smith - Father Time seems to have got out of the habit of keeping bibelots on the mantelpiece... Still, these were honest critics' assessments of writers' true worth - unlike so much that is written in the review columns these days.


  1. Norman Shrapnel - they don't make critics with names like that any more, at least outside of novels.

  2. Even better, I think he was also a parliamentary sketch writer.