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I’ve just finished reading an enormous work over 1,000 pages, Lives of the Novelists: a history of fiction in 294 lives, short biographies of novelists writing in English by John Sutherland (Profile Books London 2011). It presents a novel idea (excuse the pun), embodying both literary and social history in English from John Bunyan in 1660 to Rana Dasgupta in 2010. It charts literary fashions, examines the best sellers and the classics of past and present years and gives an idea of how the novel has changed over the years while its function has remained, after all, very much the same. It’s clearly not an encyclopaedia (not comprehensive enough) nor a history of fiction, even fiction in English (for the same reason) but a snapshot or series of snapshots (of many possible ones) of the way fiction has developed over the years.
My personal response to the novelists selected for inclusion in the book may be typical of many readers. The great bulk of them I had heard of and was indifferent to, about 130 of the entries. These included celebrated names, and others obviously important to Sutherland himself. A whopping 100 names I had never heard off, and I consider myself well read. This is mainly, I think, because Sutherland seems to be a specialist in 19th century best selling novelists. Nothing has such a short shelf life as a best seller, or tells as much about the times it was one. Of the 294 novelists Sutherland writes about, there were only 40 writers I liked, and 20 I strongly disliked. Despite this, I found the book fascinating. It helped get through so many pages that Sutherland concentrates on life and times material, seldom stopping for literary criticism. He delights to pass on details about subjects’ sexual preferences, and the number of writers he mentions who are homosexual is surely higher than average. Here you can find out the names of the many famous women that Daphne du Maurier had sex with for example. It was this mix of personal anecdotes about writers, and social history, that made the book so readable for me.
Sutherland apologises for his selection in his preface, and calls it ‘idiosyncratic’. He has no need to do so. I read somewhere recently that every year in Britain about 5,000 novels are published. Even though 4,999 probably fall still born from the press, the numbers mount up over time, and no-one writing on the novel can now be comprehensive. If the spread of internet enabled epublishing continues, there could soon be 500,000 novelists a year, and eventually as many writers as readers, a fact that might lead to the decline, not enhancement, of reading as an activity. Who knows? So diversion of this stream to genre publishing and reading is bound to increase. This means much of the output will be directed at audiences only interested in specific genres or even sub-genres, and who will ignore the rest. One such genre, though the literary mandarins and the educators don’t like to admit it, is literary fiction, once called ‘good’ literature, produced in conformity to dictates of taste and forming, hopefully, part of a tradition and a canon. Literary historians, and I am supposing Sutherland is one, straddle an uncomfortable position, taking note of worthwhile fiction in the tradition but also acknowledging the existence of best sellers totally oblivious of such traditions. Genre readers, in the meantime, can tell you all about Robert Howard and his Conan stories, and argue endlessly about the merits of his ‘continuators’, and are often oblivious of the existence of books such as Ulysses. We are slowly realising that nobody need be ashamed or dismissive of this. So I understand that Sutherland has left out Joseph Heller and Catch 22, John Gardner and Nickel Mountain, Vikram Seth and A Suitable Boy, Vikram Chandra and Funeral Games, the work of Angela Carter, and underplays the significance of George Orwell. These would be part of my own ‘idiosyncratic’ selection. But after all, no-one’s perfect.
Sutherland quotes Jacques Bonnet in his prologue: “Authors are just fictional people [of whom we know] never enough to make them truly real”. I think this is significant. Entering the world of fiction should confront us with the fact that the novelist is just as much a creation, by himself and his critics and readers, as his fiction. So is a history of fiction (fiction is a lie that strives to tell the truth). Sutherland closes his preface with this admission: “It will be easy to see why most of those writers who did get in got in [the book]. What they have in common is that they are all novelists who have meant something to me, or who have come my way over a long reading career and stayed with me, for whatever reason”. The next step to comprehensiveness would be an encyclopaedia, and they are usually not as readable as this book.
The bulk of the book concerns modern literature of the 20th and 21st centuries, over 170 authors: 19th century writers have 100 entries, and those working earlier a mere 25. So there are no revelations here about the history of the novel. The vast number of women writers of the time of Henry Fielding (including his sister Sarah) are mentioned as exhaustively as Ian Watt does in his 1957 book The Rise of the Novel (a study of Defoe, Fielding and Richardson). I mean not at all. It is no surprise to see entries for Defoe, Richardson, Fielding and Sterne, but good to see an entry for the fascinating Aphra Behn and her confusing mix of autobiography and fiction (Aphra is of course also famous as a founder of the 18th century British drama). One can only shake one’s head over the entry of John Cleland, a sub de Sade writer writing to escape debt and with no serious social purpose as de Sade had (but he is entertaining to hear of). And pornography, or at least written pornography, is as hard to write without being ludicrous, in the 18th century as it has been ever since.
It is at the end of the 18th century entries that Sutherland starts to surprise. There is an entry for Robert Bage. Who is Robert Bage? An industrialist who came upon hard times, influenced by ideas that resulted in the French Revolution, and, like Walter Scott, wrote himself out of financial difficulties. His novels, though he began with little literary skill, reflected the progressive ideas of the time and were very popular. Around 1800 anybody you mentioned Robert Bage to in England would have known whom you were talking about.
Another once famous name was Mrs Catherine Gore, the mother of 10 children who survived more than one period of abject poverty, was defrauded of her fortune, lost her husband, went blind, yet was very wealthy indeed when she died. Her secret? Her ability to write as many as two novels a week, her specialty being lurid accounts of the ‘lower upper classes’ (the British class system is complex – the group Mrs Gore wrote about were not aristocrats but tolerated by them as acquaintances). All very shades of Mills and Boon and similar production houses, yet admirable in a horrible kind of way. I try not to think of all those lower middle class wives devouring Mrs Gore’s books, satisfied to think the better off were no better than they should be.
Other female writers follow such as “‘Fanny Fern’ … a bestselling novelist, serial wife and newspaper columnist (some accounts say the first columnist in the country [USA], others merely the highest paid)”. The enormous contribution 19th century female novelists made to feminism by, first of all, existing, often precariously; highlighting the fact there was a huge female audience for novels; and expressing the wants and concerns of females, in a time when males were oblivious to all these situations, should always be recognised. They are usually left out of literary histories on the grounds they aren’t very good. Yet histories of the novel always leave in Harold Robbins and Mickey Spillane, who weren’t very good either, possibly to a greater extent than female novelists usually ignored, though grossing as highly in their day. Sutherland covers about 80 female authors in his book.
Something I liked was the exploration Sutherland gives to end of the century novelists, a period with a feverish kind of dated progressiveness, a kind of fussy permissiveness (a bit like the 1960s in a way). I learned about Ouida, Ambrose Bierce, Bram Stoker, Mrs Humphrey Ward, Marie Corelli, and favourite authors Arthur Conan Doyle and Kenneth Grahame. The best seller greats are mentioned, HG Wells, Somerset Maugham and Theodore Dreiser, and the best sellers (but not so great) like Edgar Wallace, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Zane Grey. And the scandalous life of Norman Douglas and the inspiring one of Erskine Childers. My love of detective stories made the entries on Grant Allen, Agatha Christie, Sax Rohmer, Raymond Chandler, Earle Stanley Gardner and Dashiell Hammett enjoyable to read.
Sutherland’s book errs on the side of comprehensiveness when it comes to the (unstated) ‘English’ criteria. Novelists from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, North America and Australia, even New Zealand, are included, but also novelists who wrote in English at some stage. Naturally, Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad, but also Olaudah Equiano from Nigeria, Pearl S Buck from China, Cabrera Infante from Cuba, VS Naipaul from Trinidad, Chinua Achebe from Nigeria and Rana Dasgupta, born in England to Indian parents, living now in India, first published in Australia, a symbol of the indefiniteness national and cultural boundaries can have (do I have to add, in the modern world?). As an Australian I was glad to see two Australian authors included, sad that they were the brilliant, unreadable genius Patrick White and the stogy, unreadable Peter Carey, an advertising man who always reserves the film rights. Could have been Henry Handel Richardson, George Johnston, Christina Stead or David Malouf. And if Edgar Allen Poe and Katherine Mansfield were included, why not Henry Lawson or Charmian Clift? Guess you really can’t fit everyone in.
Probably the most valuable section of the book is the largest, on 20th and 21st century writers. Writers of the past are well documented. Best sellers of the past not so well, but Sutherland’s book remedies this lack quite well too. Modern writers, however, are rarely seen in context, as authors. They are usually seen as product, and you are urged to buy their book, the greatest story ever told, with dozens of unknowns telling you so on the book jacket. Sutherland juxtaposes Salman Rushdie and Patricia Cornwell, Ian McEwen and Michael Crichton, Julian Barnes and Jeffrey Archer, and slowly you get an idea these are all engaged in the one process, and that all of this diverse material is read, by a enormous public with a voracious appetite for reading matter. Perhaps we all read for different reasons, but we all exercise our minds the same way, decoding symbols at a greater than light speed and recreating the words through our imaginations. Quite strenuous really, and unique among human occupations.
One is left with thoughts on the very different readers authors write for, and the very different writers the public read for. The psychopaths who read Mickey Spillane’s zestful descriptions of someone hammering a human skull to fragments with a pistol while dodging the spurting blood and brains (lots of these as he’s still the best selling crime author). The history posing as fiction of George MacDonald Fraser or the fiction posing as history of Georgette Heyer. The way some writers can explore their times while writing genre stories, like Chester Himes, while others resolutely exploit those genres, like Stephen King. The marketers and hustlers who always negotiate the movie rights like Jacqueline Susann and the painstaking slow writers who write what they must like John Kennedy Toole. People who seem accidentally to become best sellers like William Golding or John Fowles, others who mine genres, creatively like Raymond Chandler, or exhaustively and ultimately in a sterile way like Chandler’s friend Earle Stanley Gardner.
For those who want more, Sutherland includes a reference to a full length biography when there is one, and suggests a key work for each author. Only the obsessive will want more of most of the writers Sutherland mentions, and the worthwhile ones will already have their fans, but his book is a useful look outside genres for most readers. Through it we can explore what the snobs are reading, the crass taste of the plebs, the sometimes strange story of the superannuated best seller. It’s a good way to see the novel in English. And I bet Sutherland hasn’t reserved the movie rights (make a nice little maxi series on TV). Myself, I’m looking forward to Lives of the Novelists II, in which Sutherland will include the lives of the 294 novelists inexplicably left out of the first volume. Bound to be more entertaining than reading the authors themselves.
©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.