Review – The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918 by D. J. Taylor
Is there such thing as a presiding literary culture today? Such is the implicit question of the final chapters of D. J. Taylor’s The Prose Factory, a history of literary life in this country since the end of the Great War. Surveying the ruins of the contemporary publishing industry, where technology has aided the self-publisher and self-publicist and little else, he concludes that there is not. Instead, there could soon be two competing literary cultures – one distinctly and deliberately highbrow, a culture of expensive hardbacks and fashionably small circulations, and the other a culture of genre fiction, ghost-written autobiographies and discounted bestsellers.
Taylor does not pass judgement on this development, noting fairly that such things have happened before and that every time eminent writers were convinced that the sky was about to fall in. But he does not deny that these are lean years for new writers, many of whom will have to cheapen themselves if they want to make a living, or starve for their art on the insultingly low advances offered by contemporary publishing houses.
Once upon a time, however, there was such a thing as a dominant literary culture; or rather, there were debates about what that culture was, and what it should constitute in the ideal. Even though there was no real mass audience, and such debates were decidedly minority pursuits, these things mattered. T. S. Eliot elicited much comment with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” when it was first issued in Poetry in 1915. Such debates meant something to a great swathe of the literate public. Aside from a few manufactured scandals, one cannot imagine such a controversy arising today – at least from a matter of taste.
And taste, Taylor writes, was what mattered to critics and readers alike. The ‘little magazines’ of the first half of the twentieth century, for example Eliot’s Criterion, arguing fiercely over modernism, cared deeply about taste. These arguments persisted for the remainder of the century, in little magazines, in university common rooms, in magazine letters pages; and they mattered retrospectively, in diaries and memoirs of participants, who remembered these discussions more than half a century after they had so captured the attention of the cultural élite.
There is a real sense of intellectual dynamism which pervades Taylor’s survey. He writes of Experiment, a magazine undertaken and edited by Cambridge undergraduates, including Jacob Bronowski: ‘Editorial standards were high – so high that Bronowski felt able to reject a submission from Ezra Pound’. The magazine’s editors were personally congratulated in letters from Eliot and James Joyce.
With taste came arguments about tastefulness, and with these arguments came a real sense of literary progression, in which styles and worldviews were generated – often with an overblown manifesto in a small-circulation magazine – briefly flowered, and then finally succumbed to the pressure of production, yielding to the onward march of modernity. Some of the old titans persisted for years, but they were eventually rendered silent by time or commercial reality – or both.
This is a rather cyclical idea of literary culture, one which can appear almost mechanistic. The impression appears apt. Writers have not been allowed to be idle since the disappearance of the wealthy patron. Writers now have to work for a living. Years ago, many could draw upon private means; writers today, like the chancers depicted in George Gissing’s New Grub Street, have to engage in hack work just to feed themselves and their families. At times this can prove a real strain, as Taylor conveys through the description of a succession of minor writers whose careers were nasty, brutish, but not, by necessity, short.
This parade of writers, trooping en masse through a 500 page book, is enough to make even the most diligent reader sag somewhat under the weight of the ages. It also cements the impression that writing is a treadmill, with many aspirant hacks snapping at the heels of those already established. Even in the lean years following the Second World War, writers were instructed to remain wary. Alec Waugh, the older and less successful brother of Evelyn (‘who wrote many books, each worse than the last’, according to his nephew Auberon), returned from his war service to receive the following warning from his agent. ‘A number of new writers have come up’, he was told; ‘You’ll have to be regraded’.
One thing which comes across most strongly from Taylor’s book is just how much of a slog writing can be, and how difficult it is to survive on the proceeds. Taylor’s detailed description of writers’ earnings, from the most lauded and gilded to the poorest and most average, is both eye-opening and more than a little disconcerting.
The intellectual forerunner of much of Taylor’s work in The Prose Factory is Cyril Connolly, the founding editor of Horizon and author of the 1938 book Enemies of Promise. It is a curious tripartite book about literature, combining a first-rate description of the permutations of and stylistic changes within English letters in the early twentieth century, a perceptive catalogue of the reasons so many writers failed to produce the great work they felt they ought to write, and a candid memoir of the author’s own ‘Georgian boyhood’. It is stylishly written and effectively argued. That fact alone makes its thesis all the more tragic.
Connolly lists factors which may constrain a writer’s career, including the lure of journalism, the problems associated with drink and drugs, and the inevitably sacrifices associated with having a family. But his most prominent defect, the reason he did not produce the great novel he longed to write, was largely personal, even psychological. Taylor is good at dissecting Connolly’s neuroses, but he falls short of the beauty of the latter’s prose and the true incision of his judgements. Thus Taylor can produce an effective nod to and description of the novels of Malcolm Bradbury, yet also effectively avoid talking about the style of Ian McEwan, William Boyd and Martin Amis, whose works shape and populate the contemporary scene.
When Taylor comes to conclusions, they are sometimes wrong; he characterises James Wood, the best literary critic working today and a true critic among a tide of hack book reviewers, as an overly stylised highbrow operating in some ‘celestial amphitheatre … conducting a series of conversazioni with the ghosts of the past’.
Taylor’s narrative history is detailed and readable, but it effectively lacks a central argument, something to give the work a little more direction. Its characters are writers, most of them not used to being the focus of a narrative rather than the author of it. But they are just as fascinating, some of them, as the most well-rounded and alive characters in their own books. Taylor’s work is an excellent introduction to the history of this country’s literary life, but it does not, despite its length, represent an end to the discussion.
As Taylor writes, though there have been fundamental changes in literary life in recent years, largely because of technological advances, much remains the same. There will still be writers, and there will still be hacks. The trouble, therefore, remains distinguishing the one from the other, and trying one’s best to identify, as Connolly did with some success in Enemies of Promise, which contemporary novels will still be read – will still stand up at all – in ten years’ time. That way good reading lies, and perhaps even the makings of good writing.
This piece was originally published in the Winter 2016 edition of The Salisbury Review.