The Curmudgeon


Monday, August 17, 2009

Literary Matters

The Sunday Murdoch's report of the sensational discovery by William Golding's biographer that the great man confessed to having let his hormones get the better of him as a teenager has elicited a peculiar response from one Kathryn Hughes, a biographer of Mrs Beeton. Hughes notes that sensational revelations about hitherto hallowed subjects tend to overshadow serious scholarship: "the downside of your biographical subject being 'outed' - as a drinker, fighter, whoremonger or whatever - is that it may take away any chance of your book getting the kind of thoughtful critical response that all proper writers crave", at least in the Murdoch press. But what proper writer would look to any newspaper at all, let alone to the Murdoch press, for a thoughtful critical response to anything? Book reviews in the newspapers are thoughtful, serious and scholarly to about the same extent as the news and analysis are careful, informed and sober; which is to say, to the extent that they will sell newspapers; which is to say, not much. A proper writer hoping for a thoughtful critical response will turn rather to proper critics (whose work may, by occasional happy coincidence, appear in newspapers too) and leave the journalists to their huckstering, while perhaps nursing a guilty hope that a few extra copies may be sold, if not actually read, thereby.

Biographical self-pity aside, Hughes makes the sensible point that rape eighty years ago, when men were meant to be men and girls were meant to say no, might not have been the deliberate and unequivocal brutality which the term now implies: "Could it not, instead, be better described as a botched seduction scene which took place between two teenagers living at a time when sexual knowledge was something you had to acquire unofficially, often in fear and loathing?" Having supplied this thoughtful and serious perspective, Hughes complains that Golding's readers, being the sort of people who dismissed Kathryn Hughes as the woman who gave Mrs Beeton the clap, are probably too stupid to understand it: "Even the most scrupulous readers of Golding's work will find it hard to get the image of the author-as-rapist out of their mind when they settle down to re-read his work. When it comes to Lord of the Flies perhaps this is not such a bad thing", since obviously a novel about violence acquires a certain extra thoughtfulness and seriousness in the scholarly critic's mind if its author has a violent reputation. On the other hand, "when one delves into Golding's other novels, including subtle metaphysical work such as Pincher Martin and Darkness Visible, the idea of the author not as a sage and evolved soul but as a panting teenager is really not all that helpful". Fortunately, since the author was no longer a panting teenager when he wrote those books, it is possible that critics less scholarly than Kathryn Hughes may overcome the handicap.

Speaking of subtle and metaphysical works, Tjerk, who is one of this weblog's most long-standing and charitable commenters, has posted a long and generous review of my Satanic Supplement, in which he hints at some of my messier hobbies without being so crude as to state them explicitly. I thank him most sincerely for his kindness and discretion, and beg to direct your attention to the various other facets of my genius: from the medical through the socio-political to the eschatological and the public-transport-oriented counterfactual. Shop early for Christmas, give your loved ones no peace, and review with either scholarly insight or effective salesmanship, according to your inclination.


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