Illiterary criticism

Guardian Unlimited: Arts blog - books


Stephen Moss

Stephen Moss

February 26, 2007 10:14 AM


Sam Jordison doesn't think much of Henry James, and told us so on this site recently without any Jamesian syntactical beating about the bush. "Wading through his books seems to me to be the literary equivalent of wearing a very stiff and uncomfortable shirt simply in order to attend an endless speech given by a dull and pompous old headmaster," said the Hammerer of Henry, though the critique was weakened somewhat by his assertion that he had read only three of his novels and by his disappointment in finding that The Turn of the Screw was not "fun".

If Jordison wants straightforward early James, might I recommend The Portrait of a Lady and Washington Square? Then perhaps he could move on to the stodgier, often hard-to-assimilate later James - The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl. No one who has any serious interest in the evolution of the novel can afford to ignore these books, and James's oh-so-painful efforts to exactly represent human thought and emotion, every shade of it, in prose. It will exhaust you: James said his ideal reader would get through just five pages a day; you will lose his thread in the way you do with Proust's labyrinthine sentences; but you will surely appreciate the art and the ambition.

Jordison, youthful iconoclast that he is, was also exercised by Hardy. "I thought I would never read a clumsier, less convincing or more self-indulgent piece of twaddle than Tess of the D'Urbervilles - until I read Jude the Obscure," he thundered. I have more difficulty coming to Hardy's aid here (not that he, or James for that matter, especially needs my assistance). It's several decades since I read Jude and Tess and, while finding them very powerful when I read them at an impressionable age, a more recent attempt to reread The Return of the Native proved a little sticky. Hardy's mindset and the moral vision of his characters are alien to us; again you have to ease yourself into these books, inhabit them, show some creative sympathy. They are probably not the books for the beach on which Jordison appears, in his picture, to be strolling.

But my real beef with his critique is that it's not a critique. Words like "twaddle" don't offer any substance to a debate about books; such a contribution is basically, well, twaddle. You can't bear James or Hardy ... so what? That's your problem - and your loss. If you don't want to understand late Victorian literature, just ignore it. Alternatively, read and reflect upon the whole of James (most critics would say early, middle and late James almost constitute different writers); read Leon Edel's psychologically probing five-volume life of James; assess his fruitful relationship with Edith Wharton (explored in Hermione Lee's new biography of Wharton); place him in the context of Victorian and Edwardian letters; look at his legacy; read the spate of recent fictions (Hollinghurst, Lodge, Toibin) that have circled round him - and then report back. Maybe with more than four paragraphs, the principal conclusion of which is that he's shit.

Worse still, Jordison's dismissal set the tone for the long, dismal, depressing discussion that followed. Don't get me started, screamed the commenters - about Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Austen, Dickens, the Brontës, Woolf, Joyce, Angela Carter, Saul Bellow, Thomas Pynchon, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Flaubert. Yes, Flaubert! "I am currently ploughing through Madame Bovary," says the Flaubert-basher. "OK, it's an English translation so may be great in French, but seriously, every time I think of it I think I'm going to start crying. Why do people praise boring books? I'm thinking of giving up now (and I hate doing that), but I'm sick of watching crap TV to distract myself from having to read that rubbish." That's a heck of a lot of thinking - best to stick to the crap TV and leave Flaubert alone.

The School of Jordison was in full flow. "Hardy is the pits" ... "Ian McEwan - I just don't get it" ... "Mill on the Floss gave me a rabid hatred of George Elliot" (sic) ... "Ulysses has to be one of the most boring Great Books of all time" ... "DH LAWRENCE! What a lot of rubbish" ... "VIRGINIA WOOLF - self-indulgent nonsense. You're unhappy, I get it. Now shut up about it!" ... "Wordsworth, pile of arse."

It is tempting to ignore these opinions - if they can be called opinions - or to treat them for what they are: rubbish, the pits, a pile of arse. Blogging should offer the possibility of interaction and reasoned discourse; mindless abuse is, surely, not the way to proceed. Leave infantile insults to infants. Read the books and think about them; recognise that they are products of other societies, other mores, other ways of thinking; read them with a sense of the context; and see them as part of a river of literature, flowing ever on, sometimes racing, sometimes meandering, sometimes freezing over, but always eventually carrying us somewhere.

There was one contribution, in the almost 500 on the blog, that I liked; indeed that summed up the wrong-headedness of the whole enterprise. It came from StevenAugustine: "This blog bit is really shaping up to be Yobbo's Corner, isn't it? The sheer genius, craft and wisdom on display in the great majority of the 'can't reads' listed here tells a nice little joke on the posters. It's almost as though some teacher stood in front of a roomful of punters asking, 'How many here can't read?' And the hands went rocketing up." StevenAugustine, I canonise you.

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