Literary Sociology

My presupposition is that the structural customs of a literary scene—the ways things happen—considerably determines the writer’s career; it follows that the cast of his career influences his intellectual style and tone. The first question is how an English literary critic, in contrast to an American, initiates his trade? One eminent, politically radical English critic informed me that every successful literary journalist he knew had “come down” from either Oxford or Cambridge.

In America, in contrast, nearly every writer of note I know, whether of fiction or criticism, was discovered by mail—by approaching editors he had never met and with whom he probably had no mutual acquaintances, with an unsolicited manuscript he had prepared in advance. Even later in their careers, many, if not most, active American critics, unlike English, write for editors they have not met before (and may never meet at all); and they know personally only a few, if any, of the magazine’s other contributors.

In practice, then, the young Englishman must personally know persons of authority—whom you know and who you are—while the American must have something to show for himself—what you know and what you’ve done. This contrast produces and parallels other differences. . . . Most important, whereas the English writer seems to believe that forces and circumstances outside his control shape his future, the American writer knows that man makes his own destiny, that his own limitations are his biggest enemy; and this is, to me, the decisive spiritual difference between English and American culture.

Although [book] reviewing hardly resembles boxing, the sport offers the appropriate analogies. An American reviewer catches the book as he leans forward, swing­ing his weight behind a premeditated plan; the English reviewer, more over-worked, catches the book on the back of his heels and, dazed, directs his facility toward getting rid of it as soon as possible.. . Furthermore, since the American critic writes so much less than the British reviewer and since his editors are less inclined to use him regularly, he tries very hard to stand out from the page, assuming, sometimes almost desperately, that no one will ever notice him unless he distinguishes his work from the mass of prose. The Englishman knows he has an audience; the American feels the need to make one for himself.

The English reviewer seems to want to blend into the page, perhaps marginally differentiating himself, especially if he is young, by a slight sharpness of tone; even if he has some specific thoughts to express, he is not obvious about his point, often muffling his message beneath a patter of polite encomia for V. S. Pritchett (“our best critic of fiction today”) epitomize these values: “He is also one of the rare critics who lets us continue the argument and draw conclusions for ourselves, instead of insisting every step of the way.” Whereas the serious American critic fears dullness and conspicuous soft-heartedness, the English reviewer feels the worst sins are sloppiness of style, heavy-handedness of manner, and opinions that might be considered evidence of rudeness or bad taste.

Although the existence of Established Opinion in England is apparent to everyone, it is difficult for an outside observer to discern its precise origins. Quite often, for instance, I asked who was the first to suggest that Angus Wilson was England’s major contemporary novelist—an opinion accepted in most established circles (but not in America or on the continent)—and my respondents could offer either no explanation or a reply as evasive as, “No one. It just happened, because his novels are so good.” The reason for such mystery is that primary opinion in England is not usually exposed to the public; it is thrashed out at private parties which, unlike those in America, are really attended by the prime shapers of opinion. These prime movers are few in number, and many of the few double or triple in role among the following functions: university teacher, trans­lator, BBC producer, publishers’ reader (if not director), literary adviser, reviewer, review editor, television and/or radio panelist, juror of prizes, Arts Council official. The power available to certain British writers is, by American standards, incredibly concentrated.

In America, primary highbrow opinion can be traced to public outlets, usually quarterlies; and as there are a multiplicity of quarterlies, one hierarchy of potentially primary opinion must compete with the others. Thus, it takes more time in America for primary opinion to enter the mainstream of a culture—usually signaled by its unanimous acceptance in Time, Newsweek, The New York Times Book Review; and even then, it succeeds only in a distorted and compromised form. Much of the currently established literary opinion in America was, for instance, first posited in Partisan Review some twenty years ago; and certain writers who appeared extensively in Partisan at that time—Bellow, Mary McCarthy, Sartre—are now the reigning luminaries; similarly, Faulkner’s reputation had essentially coterie origins before it became general currency. What separates England from America in this respect is, once again, the American pluralism; no one group in America can ever control or even influence enough of the media to foist its enthusiasm upon a large public without the implicit consent of other hierarchies. In England, one is amazed to learn how many eminent native writers, methodically praised by their peers, are rarely read at home and never abroad. Had Kingsley Amis not written Lucky Jim, he would be in the same sad situation as John Wain.

All this resistance to sustained disagreement partially accounts for the general unanimity of English critical opinion that extends from the quality Sunday papers across the entire spectrum through the weeklies to the monthlies like Encounter and The London Magazine. Indicatively, it is not unusual, as it would be in America, to find many writers frequently contributing to all three types of journals, nor is it unusual to find a mediocre book by a respected writer receiving suspiciously faint praise in every public medium (only to be sometimes damned in private conversation).

In England I once happened to tell a literary editor that such-and-such was a very bad book and explained why. Some days later, I encountered him again; and he told me the book’s publisher thought my arguments were pernicious and that I was a less-than-reputable person for holding such opinions. The editor suggested that I explain myself in writing to the publisher, which out of deference to the editor, I foolishly did. If the publisher investigated the sources and earlier American reviews I suggested he check, he offered no evidence of such care, replying only with some platitudinous defense of his author. The point is that no American literary editor I know would accept a publisher’s authority as greater than that of an independent critic; indeed, if anything, American editors too easily side with the critics, regardless of their authority, against the publisher.

Even critical writing by English academics is frequently simplistic, barely aware of its penchant for superficial explanations or of literary criticism as a problem meriting various methods.

Whereas America is basically a philistine country with a vulgar appearance but with a thriving high culture, England has a generally more intelligent and tasteful populace and a civilized demeanor but a lesser high-cultural achievement. American culture is, as usual, both better and worse.

—“The English Literary Scene”(1966)