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Making the List

Steve Donoghue talks with John Cotter about:

Lives of the Novelists

by John Sutherland
Yale University Press, 2012

The latest book from long-time author, critic, and editor John Sutherland is his enormous Lives of the Novelists, a compendium of 294 entries, each giving readers a quick biographical sketch of a novelist and a quick, judgemental critical overview of their work. The collection is chronological, and its conception of the novel is that of a conventional English Literature course of the 1950s: entries start with Defoe and Richardson (Lady Murasaki Shikibu – let alone Apuleius – need not apply). Concluding each entry are three abbreviations: FN – the author’s full name (which for reasons known only to Sutherland couldn’t be worked into the entry proper), MRT – ‘Must Read Title’ (if you’ve only got time for one), and Biog – short for ‘Biography’ (a recommendation for the best full-length biography of the author). In his brief Preface, Sutherland tells us that the philosophy guiding the collection is “the belief that literary life and work are inseparable and mutually illuminating.” The inseparable part is incontestable, and Lives of the Novelists turns entirely on how well its author can make the case for mutual illumination.

For help with the latter, I turned to Open Letters’ own Executive Editor John Cotter, who is also a novelist, author of 2010’s Under the Small Lights, for his thoughts on Sutherland’s book.

SD: With a book like this one, the obvious first thing anybody – critic or otherwise – is going to talk about is who’s in and who’s not, so let’s jump right into that! And not just who’s in and who’s out, but the why behind the inclusions and exclusions. There are obvious patterns here and plenty of willful eccentricity – but is there anything illuminating as well? He leaves out Tolkien but includes Lewis Grassic Gibbon?

JC: Right – Peter Carey but no Salman Rushdie, Jeffrey Archer but no John Le Carré … you could go as long as you liked … G. Cabrera Infante but no William Gaddis, Alice Munro and Saki but no Frank O’Connor or Flann O’Brien. You could make a book just as long and just as good with everyone who got left out. Admittedly, the selections are idiosyncratic, Sutherland says as much in the preface. And no one person (present company excluded) can read every poxy scribbler that’s published. Still. I scanned for all my particular favorites: Burgess and Forster were there, but missing were Marilynne Robinson, Evan S. Connell, Larry McMurtry, Hemingway’s entry is a footnote to Fitzgerald’s.It includes Lydia Davis but we leave out Katherine Anne Porter. At first I wondered if popularity was the watchword, why else include the Earl Stanley Gardner and Susanna Rawson? Because of what they’ve done for the novel as art? But sales aren’t everything, or Barbara Cartland and Stephen King would be here too.

SD: So what do you think determined who made the cut and who didn’t?

JC: There are two criteria at work, so far as I can tell: mass popularity, which is more-or-less required (Alice Sebold is here), but required also is that John Sutherland finds your life of especial interest – at least the juicy bits. There’s a lot of talk of sex here, more by far than these authors were having. Jane Austen’s sexuality is probed in any number of ways in the many chambers and specially-outfitted scenarios of Sutherland’s imagination, Arthur C. Clarke is trotted in purely for the sake of his bad adventures in South Asian brothels. Impotence (Orwell’s, Amis’) is toyed with to no real effect. We get some hearsay on the skin tone of E.M. Forster’s equipment. “Gay” is misused as a noun. I half suspect Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) was dusted off solely to be quoted:

“Oh Christ!” she ejaculated in one letter of the mid-1959s, “why did I have to be born in this filthy age?” It was a “disgusting era.” She had no time for contemporary fiction (“kitchen sinks and perverts”) … Her views on geo-politics were similarly unreconstructed. “Isn’t it FUN,” she wrote to a friend in 1967, “to see the Israelis beating hell out of the wogs?”

There are some good appreciations here, genuine analysis on the wherefores of the work (and misses too, as in our author’s summary of the “core vision” of the aforementioned Lewis Grassic Gibbon as “the inherent pessimism of diffusionism”). His short life of Nabokov is a model of even-handedness, but his Hawthorne is made of cardboard (cardboard and incest). Sutherland clearly wants to squeeze the choice bits of pulp out of every life and in that sense his book belongs to the very best tradition of hackery – story for story’s sake. So seen, the inclusion of several non-novelists in Lives of the Novelists (Katherine Mansfield, Alice Munro, Lillian Hellman – but no Oscar Wilde) makes sense as a celebration of storytellers. Sutherland, like E.M. Forster’s lorry driver, likes a good story, and the book is a fun one to read.

SD: You mention that the book is obviously idiosyncratic, and yes, it’s clear that Sutherland is writing throughout to please himself as much as to please any theoretical audience. But is there a line where idiosyncrasy becomes disingenuous? And if so, did you find this book crossing that line – and if so, does it cross the line too many times? Is the mixture of authority and wackiness too often unhelpful or downright misleading? We’re given a brisk enough summary of Sir Walter Scott (author of the previous Lives of the Novelists), then told that his writings inspired the Ku Klux Klan – and recommended Sutherland’s own biography of the man for further reading, as though to emphasize his authority. Time and again (Nicholas Monsarrat, Muriel Spark, etc), we’re told in the life that Work X is the author’s best thing – and then given Work Y for that author’s “Must Read Title.” Did the dissonances pile up for you?

And what about that “Must Read Title (MRT)” gimmick? I assume you have no problem with Earthly Powers getting the nod for Burgess, but some of the other choices seem deliberately pitched to start arguments at cocktail parties. Did you get the sense that Sutherland actually believes his own choices? And even if he does, what about the gimmick itself? It’s obviously unfair to authors who’ve given us a whole lifetime of work – or is it?

JC: I wonder if Sutherland went a bit mad. The first handful of lives are solid, Ian Watt territory — and the Richardson life is brilliant. Take this bit about Fielding’s moral compass as compared with Richardson’s, the spur that set him running; between the two, they set up, “one of the principal dialectics in English fiction of the period. Is virtue something learned through experience and error, or an innate ‘innocence,’ something to be ‘preserved’? Put another way, do you have to be bad before you can be good? And, if so, is bad bad?” That’s good. But not a page later, one of the very first things we learn about Samuel Johnson is that rumor has it he liked it when Mrs. Thrale handcuffed him to the bed. Only then do we learn about the essays and the Rambler and Rasselas. Only I should not have said learn because, properly speaking, we don’t really learn much about anything from “Lives of the Novelists.” We largely, in fact, encounter one unexamined reference after another, raising the question of what sort of reader this book is intended for. The first twenty pages, for example, find two separate references to David Garrick (Samuel Johnson traveled to London with “David Garrick no less,” and to John Cleland, “David Garrick was a friend”). The trouble here is that we either know who David Garrick is or we don’t. If we know him, we probably know that he was a friend and admirer of Johnson’s. If we don’t know who David Garrick is, there’s nothing here to clue us in.

This is what I mean by Sutherland’s madness. He must have realized fairly early on that if he was going to write for initiated readers, he was going to have to offer them something new. When that something new can’t be good analysis (as it sometimes is, but often isn’t – you can’t be an expert in everyone) then puckish eccentricity will just have to fill in. Everyone on earth can sound like an utter freak if you set out to describe them that way.

So I think he was trying to be provocative, yes, and it can look foolish, both with those MRTs and those weird quotes at the top of each life – what did you make of those little quotes? I thought they mostly didn’t work.

SD: No, the epigraph zingers don’t work – they universally read like in-jokes. But in this tale of provocation, puckish eccentricity, and madness (!), what does work? Surely you had the same first reaction as any reader of a book like this – surely you thumbed straight to the authors you yourself know really well, to see if Sutherland represents them true? Those authors, for you, span the literary spectrum, from pulp mystery writers to Burgess and Nabokov, with a smattering of classics in between – how did ‘your’ authors fare at Sutherland’s hands?

And beyond that, what works? This is a big, beautifully-packaged volume, and for all its eccentricity, it does after all distil virtually the entire reading life of one of our longest-standing literary commentators. There’s a winning playfulness on many of these pages, and some thought-provoking analyses of works readers might think they already knew. Even when it was annoying you, did you find yourself continuing to read? Who would you recommend this to, and why?

JC: Of course I read on! A book like this is catnip to a reader with wide interest and so you keep paging back and forth … oh man, if this is how he does Conrad how does he cover Ford?  And I did page to favorites, though it must be said that there’s no Joan Didion or Peter Matthiessen here, no Dorothy Parker or P. G. Wodehouse, so the list of people I’d know lots about narrows. His profile of Nabokov was loving and almost embarrassingly respectful, as all profiles of Nabokov are (see Gilbert Sorrentino’s parody in the early pages of “Mulligan Stew” – “McCoy rises at 4:30, washes carefully in spring water shipped to him from the Alps, and begins to write. His revisions at such an hour are carefully made, and he will tune a sentence for hours in order to make it ‘tingle,’ as he puts it. Later, after lunch, he takes care of mistakes by throwing away the whole page. ‘I have, I suppose, lost many a short story that way,” he grumbles. ‘but one is trapped within one’s obsessions, tant pis‘”). Sutherland clearly takes Nabokov as seriously as he takes anyone. His take on Burgess is par, with points gained for plugging Earthly Powers but points lost for including two must-read biographies, which he hardly ever does, one of which is Roger Lewis’ hatchet job, in which Burgess is a drooling monster of ego and impotence. Blake Morrison, writing for the Guardian, called it “an idle, fatuous, self-regarding book.” He needn’t have been so kind.

SD: Who else? The book is full of juxtapositions, some a lot more effective than others – did any of those jump out for you?

JC: I’ve recently come to love Richard Hughes and I so I searched him out. To my delight he was there, paired with Martin Amis in a joint bio-piece. You can see Sutherland’s thinking — Amis had a role in the film version of one of Hughes’ novels. But is there any further reason to join them together? In fact there is. Sutherland talks about how young Amis was when he first met success, and how the press in England has come to regard him as an eternal boy. Well, he did play a boy in Hughes’ High Wind in Jamaica, a boy who dies suddenly and unexpectedly, who’s never given a chance to grow up. Sutherland speculates that it was meeting young Martin on the film set that incited Hughes’ preoccupation with why he’d killed the young character, a preoccupation Hughes talked about at length when Sutherland, himself a young man, heard Hughes lecture. Sutherland pivots nicely into the role that death played in Hughes’ own young life (he lost three brothers early, then his father), all of which was fascinating to me because although I love A High Wind In Jamaica, I didn’t know anything about its author. So far so good, the joining works. Then we reach the last paragraph and it all falls apart. The roots of Sutherland’s fondness for the Roger Lewis biographical style become suddenly and horribly clear as we are invited to speculate along with D.J. Taylor whether “Hughes’ interest in ‘little girls’ merits closer attention than it has received. We shall never know.” Well, so long as we can hit at character-destroying slander without exploring it, all’s to the good. Then this oddity: “If Amis is the hare on steroids, Hughes is the tortoise with arthritis. With the difference that the tortoise, in this instance, lost the race.” End of entry. So what does lost mean here? Hughes’ novels are better than Amis’ by miles. Are we talking about popular opinion? Sales? Hughes sold well in his life, and of course Amis is more read in our current moment; perhaps by virtue of being born fifty years later than Hughes, Amis is still alive and still writing. Does Sutherland mean that Amis ‘won’ because he wrote more books? I invite readers to get themselves copies of Yellow Dog, read it all the way through, and get back to me on who won what.

There are places where he shines, though, and the history of all these texts’ reception is one of them. Take this, for example, on George Eliot, from the very beginning of her entry:

In 1934, Lord David Cecil, in his belletrist monograph Early Victorian Novelists, observed, with a donnish sigh, that the dust lay heavier on George Eliot than on her great contemporaries: Dickens and Thackery. That dust has been blown off (though quite a lot has landed on the luckless author of Vanity Fair) in the last eighty years. Two mighty winds are responsible for the de-dusting of George Eliot: 1. Feminism, and its energetic search for female Shakespeares; 2. The rise of Ph.D.-sponsored ‘research’. What once looked like ‘dull’ is now Arnoldian ‘high seriousness’.

All of what I ungenerously noted above as faults are there, of course: ad hominem shots (Ph.D. students this time around) and references aimed over the head of the fledgling reader (had he written “Matthew-Arnold-style ‘high seriousness’ freshman readers would have at least a full name to look up). But: it’s delightful. That ‘donnish sigh’ is very nice and Thackeray’s eating of Eliot’s dust and that ‘female Shakespeares’ are the best kind of fun—just this side of cruel.

So to answer your question, I’d recommend to book to anyone who’s read a lot, anyone with a good eye for what’s being left out and what’s only in there to titillate. It instructs and enrages in equal measure and, in that sense, it’s hard to put down.

John Cotter is Executive Editor and Steve Donoghue is Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly.