This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
‘‘Your book is a series of liberal anachronistic clichés, loosely tied together with a modish feminist structure … you have absolutely no idea of what you’ve written about.” As Lord Byron (not the Lord Byron, but the present-day holder of the title) thunderously denounced me at the Byron Society’s 2016 Christmas lunch, I felt like the reckoning after the feast, surprised though I was to have been invited in the first place.
My book Byron’s Women was a revisionist account of the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” poet. I attempted to delve beneath the indulgent, even sycophantic accounts of Byron that have continued to flourish since his death in 1824 and concentrate on his appalling treatment of the women in his life. But as the current Lord’s splenetic response reminded me, amidst the approving nods from the Society, I had crossed a line: I had insulted their idol.
Those who idolise long-dead writers regard them with the attitude a mother lion might reserve for her cubs
I faced other similarly disgusted reactions, too. One enterprising man, a self-proclaimed bishop who himself claimed to be descended from Byron, wasted no time in publicly rubbishing both me and my book. We engaged in a lively debate for a little while, but those who argue with bishops tend to become unstuck, especially when one’s opponent is armed with both certainty and the authority of a book. Alas, Byron’s Women failed to change anyone’s opinion of Byron. The cult continues to flourish, and the Byron Society continues to “celebrate” — their word — the life and works of their hero.
Welcome to the rarefied world of cult literature, where adherence to a writer goes far beyond mere appreciation of their work. At their most extreme, those who idolise long-dead writers regard them with the pugnacious and proprietorial attitude that a mother lion might reserve for her cubs. The fact that they will not receive any thanks for their endeavour does not deter them from their self-determined quest to continue to promote their chosen hero or heroine.
A writer whose literary ambitions in their lifetime might not have stretched far beyond hoping that their work would be enjoyed, and read, by a small but select coterie of the like-minded might now be horrified to discover that, many years later, their every utterance is taken as Holy Writ, and personal items of theirs guarded zealously, like holy relics.
I have played my own part in this industry, for my sins. My first book, Blazing Star, was about the decadent Restoration poet and libertine Lord Rochester. I became obsessed by him while a student and soon came to believe that he was an overlooked and underrated figure who should be talked about in the same breath as Marvell or Donne.
Yet the strong sexual content of his poetry, as well as the continued uncertainty as to the attribution of many of his works, meant that he had always occupied a relatively minor place in the literary canon since his death at the age of 33 (from syphilis, naturally) in 1680.
Until well into the twentieth century, Rochester’s works were sold, plain-wrappered, to the grubby-minded. It is perhaps the truest mark imaginable of the real cult writer that their witty, heart-breaking and lyrical poetry could only be obtained from an emporium that specialised in literature with titles like Naked Under Rubber and Stiff and Dry.
They seem to speak to the lonely, disaffected and ostracised
It would be nice to report that Blazing Star was a blazing commercial hit, but sadly the market for biographies of long-dead decadent poets is not quite the same as that for the works of Charlie Mackesy or Richard Osman. On the other hand — and I do not wish to impugn those upstanding men, or the many millions of readers who have enjoyed their books — I very much doubt that, three-and-a-half centuries after their deaths, biographers will still be keen to delve into their lives.
The appeal of the cult writer, after all, is often that they did not achieve tumultuous fame and recognition in their own time, but have instead found it in subsequent years, decades and generations.
This is often why their work and lives are treated with such veneration and guarded so zealously by their aficionados; they seem to speak to the lonely, disaffected and ostracised with a skill and a compassion that allows those who often exist on the fringes of polite society to believe that someone, too, felt like they feel now, and this allows a degree of identification to exist between long-dead writer and living readers. In the words of Auden on WB Yeats, “he became his admirers”.
Unfortunately, this impulse is often taken far too far, and that is the central problem with the near-obsessive cults that begin to develop around writers. It is often telling to see which authors do and don’t attract such visceral attention. The likes of Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens have never been cult writers, on the grounds that they are far too famous and universally acknowledged to be able to attract the obsessive following that the fashionable (yet obscure) writer manages.
Meanwhile the likes of JB Priestley, John Galsworthy and Edward Bulwer-Lytton — writers who once sold their books by the tonne to large and appreciative audiences — are now so overlooked (An Inspector Calls, The Forsyte Saga and “it was a dark and stormy night” aside) that they would struggle to elicit the merest modicum of interest from anyone. And Sylvia Plath, Cormac McCarthy and Hunter S Thompson, once accorded cult status, have been part of the mainstream for so long now that they are about as “cult” as Walt Disney.
Instead, the curious have to delve elsewhere to find the truly overlooked and marginal. A decent barometer of cult status is how much money their first editions sell for on the second-hand or antiquarian market. Books by the cultish likes of Aleister Crowley (right), Patrick Hamilton and Mervyn Peake sell for vast sums, especially if they are in good condition, have their original dustwrappers and — holy of holies — are signed by their authors.
But it’s also telling that Crowley and Hamilton were both figures who would be thrown out of polite society today for their actions. (Peake, a melancholy surrealist who died of early onset dementia, would be spared.) Crowley was an occultist and self-described “wickedest man in the world” whose sexually and narcotically permissive actions led to his being labelled “the Great Beast”. Hamilton, meanwhile, was an alcoholic whose obsessive infatuation with working-class prostitutes — while providing peerless material for brilliant novels such as Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky — saw him spend his short life frustrated, angry and bitter.
Few cult writers were happy and fulfilled figures. But, in the words of the French novelist Henry de Montherlant, “happiness writes white”. Most of those who have achieved success of this kind have found it, if that’s the mot juste, posthumously; there are a great many suicides and untimely, often drug- or alcohol-induced, demises in the biographies of the cult writer.
Yet like Rochester, many of them spent their limited time on the planet in a near-endless riot of creativity and activity. If there is one consistent feature of the lives of such authors, it is that they managed to make their imaginations and enthusiasms work together in lockstep for at least some of their time.
Hamilton (right) wrote better than just about any writer in English about the simultaneous allure and tragedy of the pub, because that was where he spent vast portions of his life, and Crowley was not known as “the wickedest man in the world” because he once cheated at a bridge club in Worthing.
Yet now, there is a new breed of cult writers to be lionised. Forget the dead, white, heterosexual men, whose works are increasingly regarded as only being of interest to similarly antediluvian types. Instead, the “new” cult authors, whose works are republished by stylish independent presses such as Persephone Books and sold by secondhand bookshops like The Second Shelf, tend to be women, often women of colour at that, and queer men. Virginia Woolf remains their patron saint, on the grounds that she combined feminist activism, literary endeavour and suicide, but she was long ago accepted into the mainstream and remains a mainstay of just about any literary course in universities.
The truer cult writers now are the likes of Nella Larsen (author of the racially-tinged romance Passing, filmed by Rebecca Hall last year), Ann Petry and Gayl Jones. The latter, a neo-Gothic writer, was described by Calvin Baker as “the best American novelist whose name you may not know”. And if one wanted to revisit the obscure likes of Dorothy Whipple and Isobel English, Persephone Books is doing their level best to bring them back into public consciousness.
Persephone’s founder Nicola Beauman — who, in a touch worthy of one of her authors, founded the company with a small inheritance from her father — described her ethos as a simple one in 2019:
I have always had this huge interest in early twentieth-century fiction by women — what academics would call middlebrow, and I would call a good read.
The connection between [the books] is that they were forgotten and they’re very well written. I’m very keen on story and on page-turners. When I get to the end of a book, I like to put it down and feel absolutely wrenched by what I’ve read, to be in a different world.
All of this is entirely commendable. But there is no similar club for the dead white men, whether or not they deserve one. Instead, their gradual ejection from the club of what is considered “acceptable” cult literature continues, amidst murmurings of racism, snobbery and homophobia.
I cannot weep for the legions of mediocre dead white male writers
The likes of Kingsley Amis and John Osborne have fallen into disfavour, but I can see a world in which the taint extends to Evelyn Waugh, Philip Larkin and even George Orwell, whose once-impeccable political stances might well be too nuanced, even contradictory, to be acceptable to contemporary readers who would instead view him as yet another Old Etonian, with all of the prejudices and bigotries in place of his kind.
There are now two distinct, even contradictory, canons of cult literature. The first is the politically correct and socially conscious one, which has expelled the toxic male writers (with a few token exceptions, such as Wilde and Genet) and has boldly recalibrated the history of writing as one in which masculine oppression has been expunged, and the voices of hitherto unheard minorities are the ones that are sacrosanct. This, if anecdotal evidence is to be believed, is the preferred option to be found in higher education and, increasingly, in secondary schools, too.
The second definition of cult literature is made up entirely of refugees from the first, with added frowning. If I was to be found reading a copy of Scoop, Coming Up For Air or High Windows, I am no longer simply enjoying the work of a great writer, but actively participating in a patriarchal, oppressive conspiracy. That I might simply enjoy the writing for its own sake is unlikely to impress those who would castigate me.
I cannot weep for the legions of mediocre dead white male writers who have failed to attain respectable cult status and whose books, once bestselling, now mournfully adorn the charity shops like Miss Havisham’s confetti.
John Braine, David Storey, even Billy Bunter’s creator Frank Richards, aka Charles Hamilton: all would struggle to find even the slightest appreciation for their writing now, which removes them from any chance of being redeemed by resurrection into reappraisal. But I look at some of the writers who have been wafted into the firmament, modishly, and ask incredulously whether the vast majority of them are any better.
It may be more fashionable to admire them, especially when their now-ordained cult status comes in suitably stylish bindings, and if bestselling present-day writers can be prevailed upon to contribute suitably awestruck introductions in which they rave about “overlooked talent” and “extraordinary perception”.
But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, for many cult writers, acclaim or reputation has little to do with literary ability, and far more with social modishness. When Kate Winslet played the writer Iris Murdoch in the film Iris, she was much mocked for her gauche statement that “I’m a great fan of hers, but I’ve never read any of her books.” Two decades later, this would attract little opprobrium.
To be an admirer of a cult writer does not require an intimate knowledge of anything so mundane as their books. Instead, favour is bestowed upon their fans as a mark of approval, like a badge of honour. A notebook embossed with the cover of Ariel makes the same point about its possessor’s bona fides as a copy of the poetry collection.
Some might mourn this as trite, superficial and reductive. But faced with a choice between the well-behaved notebook-wielders and those who are so obsessed by their idols that they would seek to tear the unbelievers to pieces, I cannot help feeling grateful that, perhaps, the age of the cult writer, and their unhinged admirers, might be beginning to die out.
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