Who let the dons out?

Leave literary reviews to reviewers rather than score-settling academics


This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Contrary to what you sometimes read in the newspapers, the media don has been going strong for upwards of 120 years. When English Literature started professionalising itself at the end of the nineteenth century and universities needed to fill their newly-created English departments, they tended to recruit from journalism.

That first wave of English professors consequently deposited such all-round pundits as John Churton Collins (Birmingham) and George Saintsbury (Edinburgh) on the lecture-room podium — all erstwhile hacks who, whatever the glamour of their academic gigs, could never quite abandon the trade that had brought them preferment.

Laurie Taylor

Come the 1960s, as both universities and media doubled in volume, this wave turned into a torrent. Malcolm Bradbury (UEA), David Lodge (Birmingham again), the sociologist Laurie Taylor (often thought to be the original of Howard Kirk in Bradbury’s The History Man) each contrived to build a highly lucrative bridge between academe, the public prints, and the Today programme.

All of a sudden, the don could have it both ways — file that learned 5,000 words for Essays in Criticism and review for the Observer, publish a book with a title such as Foucault and the Structuralist Hegemony and judge the Booker Prize. Bliss it was to be alive in that cross-cultural dawn.

Half-a-century later, alas, the laudable aim of encouraging brainy specialists to share their knowledge with the world at large has turned into a complete disaster. Why is the presence of an academic on a book prize judging panel, fronting a BBC Four arts documentary or even reviewing for a national newspaper generally such an embarrassment? One reason, alas, is that fatal assumption of omnicompetence — the idea that talent translates from discipline to discipline which finds the titans of academe being employed to carry out tasks for which they may not actually be qualified. Mary Beard is a Classics professor. Why should she end up on poetry symposia or presenting arts docs about painting?

Another reason is the sheer inability of most academics to step down from the Parnassus of their specialist subject and engage with non-specialist hoi-polloi. This failing is particularly evident in the bread-and-butter world of book reviewing.

Naturally, there are dons and dons — when John Carey, one-time Merton Professor at Oxford, stops writing for the Sunday Times, Grub Street will have lost a dimension. But Carey, you see, is a career maverick, keen on biting the hand that feeds him, whose first major intervention in mainstream journalism (back in the 1970s for the New Review) was an essay immortally entitled “Down with the Dons”.

I never met a freelance reviewer who couldn’t give a better sense of the average novel than an assistant lecturer at the University of Uttoxeter

As for mother Carey’s chickens, all avidly disporting themselves in the Times Literary Supplement, the Literary Review, the London Review of Books and countless other organs, their main limitation is that they possess all the book reviewer’s traditional faults, only more so. Item one on a pretty considerable list is score-settling (see Terry Eagleton’s decades-long spat with A.C. Grayling, or the multiple vendettas annually conducted by Craig Raine).

Item two, as immemorially practised in the LRB, is simply to use that new volume of essays about Harold Wilson as an excuse to drone on about your own opinion of the postwar Labour Party while barely mentioning the book that started you off.

Readers often complain about book-page glad-handing. No one, it might be said, glad-hands like an academic. Dmitri Levin, reviewing Michael Hunter’s The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment for the April Literary Review, began with a fervent encomium to its influential predecessor, Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of  Magic (“undoubtedly one of the most important works written in the last century . . . Much of the cultural history of early modern England written in the subsequent half-century has consisted of pale imitations of Thomas’s magisterial work.”)

Fair enough, you might imagine, until a glance at the contributors’ page reveals that Levin, like Sir Keith, is a fellow of All Souls, Oxford. Did Thomas pat him on the head when they next met at breakfast? Or save him an extra egg?

But all this is endemic to the breed. Take a look at the current numbers of the TLS and the LRB. At least half of the pieces will be written by dons — not just don historians donnishly reviewing books by other history dons, but dons reviewing novels and films. The other half will be written by hacks.

Who produces the better journalism? Well, in all my years in and out of university English departments I never met a freelance reviewer who couldn’t give a better sense of the average novel in 800 words than an assistant lecturer at the University of Uttoxeter.

And all this has an economic angle. There are only a certain number of reviewing berths to go round. Why give them to people of questionable competence whose ability to pay the mortgage is already buttressed by an institutional salary? Carey’s old essay should be reprinted and circulated to every English department in the country. Down with the dons!

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