The English critic Sir Edmund William Gosse (1845 - 1928) (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Bring back the panjandrums

We need heavyweights to separate good from bad

Books Columns

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Thirty years ago, when the Secret Author was a wide-eyed young shaver cutting his teeth on the broadsheet arts sections, publishers’ catalogues were full of big, serious books about contemporary literature by big, serious critics keen on laying down the law.

The early 1990s was boom time for this particular genre: Lorna Sage’s Women in the House of Fiction (1992), Malcolm Bradbury’s The Modern British Novel, D.J. Taylor’s After the War: The Novel and England Since 1945 (both 1993). It was a golden age for the survey, the judgment and above all the spectacle of the pundit who stood on top of Mount Olympus tossing newly-minted opinions over the side.

It was a golden age for the survey, the judgment and above all the spectacle of the pundit who tossed away newly-minted opinions 

Not only publishing, but literary journalism and even arts-world TV danced to this evaluative tune. Who could forget the sight of the late Eric Griffiths, Cambridge don and the skewerer of many a literary reputation, writhing in his chair on BBC2’s Late Review as he pronounced that such and such a Booker-shortlisted novel was so deplorably bad that he could barely bring himself to mention it, but that this other one here was actually rather good?

If there was no one quite like Sir Edmund Gosse (1849-1928), of whom it was once said that he commanded the literary pages of the Sunday Times like an archdeacon in his pulpit, six feet above the ground and defying contradiction, then the world was awash with value judgments and — a fortiori — people who felt eminently qualified to make them.

There are still pundits here in 2021; there are still critics who are capable of getting quite cross in certain circumstances; and there are still one or two aged book world eminences known for dishing it out (John Carey, Terry Eagleton). But the age of the Bradbury-style Olympians — the critic whose knowledge of literature was so thorough-going that he, or she, could instantly fit some newly-fashioned trend or tendency into the age-old patterns — has altogether passed.

Much more common are the Oxbridge dons who, while keen on an environment in which their pupils can be encouraged to discuss literature, usually shy away from anything so reductive as the idea that one book might be “better” (or “worse”) than another.

How has all this come about? Well, two obvious explanations are a) fragmentation, and b) relativism.

The Secret Author, if asked to write an update of Bradbury’s The Modern British Novel, would simply shake his head in despair. Even 30 years ago the idea of there being a canon of accepted works and categories was already in serious dispute, but at least one would have known where to start.

Here in 2021, there are no real “developments” in fiction or schools of thought of the kind that critics used to bang on about, just a vast flotilla of writers paddling their own particular canoes along a series of meagre little tributaries and united only by their determination not to offend anyone or trespass on behavioural patches outside their individual experience.

As for relativism, there were plenty of people three decades ago queuing up to remind us that there is no such thing as a definitive critical judgment and that one reader’s opinion is as good as another.

We need grand critical panjandrums to separate the good ones from the tide of rubbish on which they float

These tendencies have, naturally, been exacerbated by the rise of the Amazon reviewer and the Good Reads responder — wonderful forums for debate and analysis in the right hands but also liable to be colonised by people without the basic information needed to rise above the approach pioneered by a column Julie Burchill once used to write entitled “Love it or Shove it”. But they are also, increasingly, a feature of “serious” criticism — those 2,000 word pieces in the London Review of Books, say, which tell you everything about a particular title other than whether the reviewer liked reading it.

Why do we need more critical authority? On the one hand, if literary criticism, as practised by anyone from F.R. Leavis and George Orwell to James Wood and Zadie Smith, means anything it is the sight of someone imposing their personality on the material that comes their way, of making a judgment about a piece of art and encouraging the reader to agree (or dissent) by way of the sheer vigour of their argument. Better a John Carey, annoying the potential purchaser of a book by means of a donnish swipe or two, than some cautious little fence-bestrider.

On the other, in an age of over-production, where there are far too many books being published, we need grand critical panjandrums to separate the good ones from the tide of rubbish on which they float.

The great Victorian sage Samuel Butler, was once, when looking out of a railway carriage window, puzzled by the sight of a calf eating a pile of dung. Why was the animal doing this, he wondered. The answer, he decided, was that no one had told it that dung was unwholesome. The same goes for much of this autumn’s publishing schedule.

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