Thursday, 16 September 2010

Purveyors of tripe, literary and other

Just been reading an unspeakably dreadful book I found in our library. (Why did they order it and why did I bother? Not sure, but if I manage to put a few people off this abomination, I shall have performed a literary-critical service, that's for sure!) Between The Sheets, by one Lesley McDowell, is subtitled The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th Century Women Writers. And yes, you guessed it, I was curious to check out the chapter [fourth out of nine] on Jean Rhys.

But in all fairness, I did read the book through with growing exasperation and speed (for one can't, at my age, afford to waste too much precious time on clumsy and shambolic drivel). Here then is a brief taste of this fanciful, ill-written, appallingly proofed, shoddily 'edited' and wildly misbegotten tome. Katherine Mansfield, "possibly the greatest short story writer in the English language rivals masters of the art like Chekhov". H.D. produced "some of the most brilliant poetry of the twentieth century". Elizabeth Smart was "author of one of the greatest works on love ever written." Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn "were a literary Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the Posh and Becks of American letters". Phooey, piffle and codswallop, of course, and therefore hilarious passim. Who is she, this sublimely insouciant humourist, perhaps one of the funniest of the 21st century?

Ms McDowell, we learn from the jacket, is a young literary journalist who writes for the TLS and the Independent on Sunday; she's gleaned "a Scottish Arts Council award for her second novel" and "earned a Ph.D. for her work on James Joyce". Wow, all very impressive. Yet I do hope her clunky, turgid style eventually improves, and hope too that, however assiduous her future researches may be, her accuracy and fact-checking prove less slipshod. It's pretty clear that Ms McD. never met or knew the people about whom she blithely pontificates and fantasises, but that of course needn't necessarily be a stumbling-block to the litcrit faculty. The trouble is, all this pretentious pseudo-feminist tosh is relentlessly recycled, fifth and sixth-hand stuff, as the citations and bibliography make clear: the devil is very much in the detail here. And boy, does the girl get those details wrong! One example (I can't bear to trawl through this 365pp. weighty tome looking for more, but just take my word for it): Dr McDowell imagines that Sleep It Off, Lady is a Jean Rhys novel.

Well I did happen to know four or five of the excellent writers selected for her tendentious generalisations, and so found both style and content doubly depressing. Libelling and labelling the dead is a cheery post mortem pastime, it seems, and perhaps now even a profitable one. As for this sort of slack, unappetising, fashionably speculative piece of trash, it's neither useful literary dissection nor detection. I'm really rather relieved that my own two books about Jean Rhys are apparently unknown to McDowell. She does, though, draw upon the equally fanciful, if marginally better written, recent 'portrait' of Jean by Lilian Pizzichini, whose The Blue Hour (2008) seems to derive its title and some other biographical angles via pp. 233-4 of my first book about Jean, Jean Rhys revisited (2000). Pizzichini was inevitably lauded for her gushing middle-of-the-road fabrications by the dreadful Sunday Times panjandrum and hackademic, Professor John Carey (for whom, see also pp. 149-151 of JRr). But she did deign to mention my memoir of Jean, even though the publication was listed incorrectly… As to the whole issue of spurious criticism and tired, sensation-seeking books about 'fascinating personalities' who reportedly behave in a larger than life, bold or 'bohemian' manner, we've surely had enough of them: save the trees, for heavens' sake!

1 comment:

  1. Du calme Alexis! Really! I worry about such intemperate ire. Take a beta blocker, have a fag or a large snifter. Were this a mere creative effusion, one among the increasing tide of instantly degradable detritus washed up on the literary littoral by the expanding ocean of little mags (two of which I know you read) then there’d be nowt to shout about. Nor do you rage at such as you pick delicately, and fruitlessly, amongst that jetsam like an oyster catcher in search of a whelk. But this, I recognise, is lit crit – a different matter – a matter of record and reputation. However, remember de gustibus non est disputandum (as they say in Latin America). I’m sure your distinguished tutors at King’s would agree – Leavis, Tanner, Steiner and Williams. Er..well actually now I think about it they wouldn’t since they all made a living out of arguing about taste…but moving swiftly on.
    Crass hyperbole is the defining attribute of the aspirant journo and one can hardly blame poor Lesley for her slight lapses of judgement. She’s just making her way in the world. I’m sure she has a very respectable degree in meeja studies from Salford or Swansea and I would certainly agree that her assertion that ‘Elizabeth Smart was "author of one of the greatest works on love ever written"’ betokens an ignorance of say Les Liaisons dangereuses, Le Rouge et le noir, Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and Albertine disparue. (I’m inclined to add Charles Bukowski’s Women but feel this would be a little de trop) Her course was most likely devoted to works from the publisher Molls and Baboons.
    I feel also that the image you conjure of this poor girl is somewhat uncharitable. I don’t see, as you do, a flat chested, four-eyed, ugly beanpole. Rather I imagine a ravishing nymphet, like, say, the young Leslie Caron (after whom she has no doubt been named). If she did trek down to Exeter I’m sure you’d be enchanted and after a chinwag and a couple of glasses of NZ sauvignon you’d be joyfully jogging together (vertically) on your neighbour’s trampoline.
    Where’s that famous King’s charm and politesse – the kind of thing the Fellows at Cantab used to bewitch Frank Kermode and enrich his declining years? You have often, litotically, “drawn my attention to..” and professed “you may possibly be right Ken but have you considered..” while correcting my egregious solecisms and I’m grateful for such consideration but surely poor Ms McDowell deserves the same.
    I suggest a little more Christian clemency (or, in your case, Greek Unorthodox). It would indeed be a tragedy if this silly cow’s …er…unfortunate lady’s…errors resulted in a cerebral aneurism in an artery already thinned by five decades of haikus. A great loss to your many friends and even, dare I say…. to the world.