Wednesday 4 May 2022

The Narrowing Ground

 Following on from my last post – it's worth noting that my own university, Cambridge, decided more than a hundred years ago that works published at any date up to the present might be included in the syllabus for what is whimsically called the English Tripos. I don't think there were any immediate ill effects of this bold move (though further down the line there might well have been), and the change was welcomed at the time by the rather improbable Professor of English, Sir Arther Quiller-Couch ('Q'), who wrote: 'I think it is time to hint at least that the Modern and Medieval Languages Board intend to justify by practice what they meant when, in framing the separate English Tripos, they so far ignored academic tradition and dared the rage of schoolmasters – which, like that of sheep, is terrible – as to open the study of English down to our own times, declining to allow that any past date could be settled, even by university statute, as the one upon which English literature took to its bed, and expired, and was beatified.' 
 Well, in his day there were no signs that English literature might have taken to its bed and expired, but can we be so sure today? With the publishing industry monolithically 'woke' and a vast range of subject matter, language and attitudes effectively outlawed, what are the chances of literary fiction good enough to become classic ever getting published? Time and again, reading classic (or at least excellent) novels from the twentieth century, the worrying thought crosses my mind: 'Would this get published today?' The answer is very often No: too 'difficult', too unusual, no obvious commercial appeal, too problematic and liable to offend against contemporary pieties – in other words, quite unsafe in every way. Would any publisher today stick with Ivy Compton-Burnett year after year? Would most of Evelyn Waugh's and Kingsley Amis's novels, and a good many of Philip Larkin's poems, get published by any mainstream publisher today? When the permitted ground is as narrow as it is today, English literature could well take to its bed and expire, or at least wither on the vine. It might already have happened in the field of humorous writing: in 2018 the Bollinger Wodehouse Prize for Comic Writing was not awarded at all, so dismally low was the standard of the supposedly humorous works submitted. And this comes as no surprise: wherever genuinely funny writing is happening now, it is not often in book form, or even print; increasingly it is being driven to the fringes of the online world. Real comedy, being more than most forms 'liable to offend', is not likely to find a place in today's po-faced, narrowly restrictive publishing world; nor is fiction that does not conform to the political and emotional correctness that is now de rigueur. This is a sad look-out – but at least we still have the riches of former, freer times to sustain us. For now. 


  1. Yes, until the electricity is switched off forever, the dustier corners of the www remain to entertain and enlighten. Meanwhile, there is the length and breadth of Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive to be getting on with. Not to mention the Principia Dobsoniana, which should keep me busy until next Tuesday. So many pamphlets!

  2. Hmm...I think it's very unlikely that if literature is dying it has anything to do with censorship. We are in perhaps the most open and unfiltered society that has ever existed, undoubtedly. I don't think anyone can seriously oppose that but I'd be deeply curious to hear a counter proposal. Even the so called "problematic" people who are lambasted on the internet still and will always sell. The "most-hated author on earth" right now, J. K. Rowling, has no trouble making million dollar deals. I think that, curiously, this all may be the actual problem because it is a symptom the oddly-mixed democratic and capitalistic condition of the literary world today.

    1. I think we were indeed an unusually open and unfiltered society until very recently, when various factors led to the rapid rise of a 'woke' hegemony, of which publishing is a part. Rowling is too big (and too much of a money-maker) to cancel, but she is hardly typical, and plenty of smaller fry have been dumped by their publishers for offending against 'woke' ideology.