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The Fickle Nature of Literary Reputation

The Times, December 20th 2000


In Plymouth last week, as I observed the stubby prow of a fishing boat, lines of verse beat in my head, synchronised with the slap of water on steel:

'Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the channel on the mad march days...'

Those percussive t's, k's and s's, that perfect participle....Ah, no wonder we all memorised John Masefield's 'Cargoes' John Masefieldat school - never afterwards to forget the energy of his metre or the onomatopoeiac precision of the diction. We had to learn 'Sea Fever' too, and stillI shiver at the imagined chill of that 'grey dawn'. In the late fifties people admired the prolific poet,novelist, playwright and children's author , created poet laureate in 1930, who did not die until 1967. But his critical reputation waned, as reputations do. Who reads John Masefield now?

A hundred and fifty years before Masefield was in his prime, an unknown called Robert Bloomfield wrote a best-selling poem called 'The Farmer's Boy'. The former agricultural labourer from Suffolk was taken up by literati who liked to patronise novelty yokel writers - as they were to do with poor doomed John Clare. So 'The Farmer's Boy' sold 26,000 copies, went into seven editions, and was translated into French, Italian and Spanish. Two years earlier Lyrical Ballads had sunk without trace. Joseph Cottle ( who would later boast that he was the first publisher of Wordworth and Coleridge) wrote to the hapless poets, 'The sale was so slow the the severity of most of the reviews so great, that its progress to oblivion..seemed ordained. I parted with the greatest proportion of the 500, at a loss, to Mr Arch, a London bookseller'. As Johnson might have put it, no place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a shop stacked high with remaindered books.

Yet Bloomfield died in miserable poverty and John Clare in the madhouse, and few people read the latter now, not even his few good poems. Whereas Wordworth and Coleridge......Always the seesaw of literary renown pitches some high, only to plummet them down with a bump, swinging the neglected ones up to graze the sky in their turn. Airy fashion bobs up there so easily. Woe betide you, writer, if your face no longer fits, if the spirit of the age consigns you to dark obsurity. Looking back on the list of bestsellers quoted by Q.D.Leavis in 'Fiction and the Reading Public' we note that in 1888 the blockbusters were Robert Elsmore by Mrs Humphrey Ward AND Plain Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling. Popular Mrs Ward can go the way of all third rate writers, but the only reason for the modern reglect of great Kipling is prejudice.

In her 1974 biography of the now almost completely unread Arnold Bennett Maragaret Drabble put it succintly: 'In literary terms it was almost inevitable that his reputation should decline. He had been a popular writer; his popularity was certain to turn against him'. A similar fate was suffered by the author of 'The Weather in the Streets' (1936) and 'The Echoing Grove (1953). In 1984 (six years before she died) I profiled Rosamond Lehmann for this newspaper and she told me what it was like to be totally forgotten, and then 'resurrected' by Carmen Callil and Virago Modern Classics - who brought her work (and that of so many other neglected women writers, to a new generation. Delighted to have new young fans, she told me, 'They identify, you see. The world may have changed, and literary fashions come and go, but the human problems stay the same'.

Angus Wilson was one of the 'must-read' novelists of my youth, but when he died in 1991,Angus Wilson Penguin allowed his novels to go out of print - to the outrage of a group of friends and admirers including Rose Tremain and the late Malcomn Bradbury. Now he too will be resurrected - by The House of Stratus, set up eighteen months ago with sound backing from the city, on the premise that good books should never go out of print. With sophisticated marketing and fast printing on demand, Stratus will give a new lease of life to Angus Wilson - and an impressive list which includes Anthony Buckeridge (of the Jennings books), Erle Stanley Gardiner, G.K.Chesterton, John Buchan and Neville Shute, whose two terrific novels 'On The Beach' and 'A Town Like Alice' had actually become unavailable in this country by 1997.

Some writers fall out of favour because of past popularity; other are consigned to the wastelands of academe. A new biography of Allen Tate (Orphan of the South by Thomas A. Underwood/ Princeton University Press) sets the man T.S. Eliot once called the best poet writing in America firmly within the transatlantic pantheon. The blurb on my 1970 Selected Poems describes him as 'one of the most distinguished of living poets'. But Tate is dead now and a hightly intelligent young American woman of my acquaintance confessed that she had never read him. He may be studied, of course, lumped together with John Crowe Ransom as examples of the Southern Literary Renaissance, period pieces - but not kept alive by real reading. Will it be the fate of Robert Lowell too - as the muscular confessional of the dead white American male is displaced by the less significant but most definitely politically correct identity of a poet like (say) Grace Nichols?

Bacon said, 'Fame is like a river, that beareth up things light and swoln, and drowns things weighty and solid.' The unworthy are lionised whilst somewhere, in lonely chilly rooms, a new Blake, a second Emily Dickinson, are toiling away at 'words and meanings' - with little hope that their stars will shine in any firmament. Is it better to be celebrated and forgotten within your lifetime, or a cult like Sylvia Plath after your death? Most of us would take the taste of champagne even if followed by gall, rather than obscurity. Occasionally the posthumous cult allows the ghost of a flea unmerited stature. Nobody will ever be able to convince me that Bruce Chatwin is worthy of the attention he has received. To re-read 'The Songlines' is to judge it a slight, self-indulgent error of a book. Yet I wait for it to take its place on a syllabus, whilst the young are allowed their ignorance of great writersPlate for Herricks Hesperides like George Meredith.

Will we still be reading Zadie Smith in twenty years time? I doubt it. My money would be on the still unknown Susan Elderkin, whose first novel 'Sunset over Chocolate Mountain' was published back in March with a few excellent reviews, but no razamatazz. When I caught up with it by accident last month I as excited as if I'd been given an early Christmas present - and even called Fourth Estate to see if the novel had won prizes. Nothing. The trouble is, a book like 'White Teeth' fits in with what the media perceives as the zeitgeist, and easily fills the column inches - whilst a superior work like 'Sunset Over Chocolate Mountain' is rich, strange and unclassifiable. One chance would be for this book to be a slow-burner like 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin'...In any case, watch Elderkin. If there is any justice she will make her literary reputation and win the Booker in a few years' time.

Real writers must shrug at the chimera Reputation, knowing it's an ersatz creature that will bite them. In truth, the situation has changed but little over the centuries. Robert Bloomfield's self-serving patrician mentor, Capell Lofft wrote in the preface to 'The Farmer's Boy', '...a person must be rich, or titled, or fashionable as a literary name, or at least fashionable in some respect, good or bad, before anything which he can offer will be thought worthy of notice'. And in the poem 'False Nightmare' ( a good name for all fame) Allen Tate poses the simple question,' Who now reads Herrick?' Indeed.