Monday, January 31, 2011

Craft: Clive James Study #7 - The Metropolitan Critic

My seventh study of Clive James' writing takes me to his criticism and to his (early) self-identification as a "metropolitan critic", a job description that he used for the well-known American literary critic Edmund Wilson (in an essay published anonymously in the Times Literary Supplement), but which was also a role in which he "fancied himself", as he later put it.

Before I look at one of James' essays, I want to acknowledge James Shapiro's somewhat negative review (in the New York Times) of James' The Essential Essays, 1968-2002. Shapiro makes the important point that James' criticism will probably not stand the test of time, because James, like his hero Wilson, has not contributed a theoretical concept that can be useful to readers in future contexts.

We need to decide whether critical work which has plainly done so much to influence its time vanishes with its time or continues. To continue, it must have done something beyond maintaining or correcting taste, important as these functions are: it must have embodied, not just recommended, a permanent literary value. (James, "The Metropolitan Critic", 1974)

Shapiro suggests that it is just this "permanent literary value" that is missing in James' criticism, and that James is too concerned with the business of "correcting taste" to be able to develop a lasting (or essential) collection of essays. James' correction of taste seems often rather harsh, expressed in a style of sarcasm that buys laughs but not necessarily permanence.

I think Shapiro is right. While James' prose is faultless and his taste is often very good, he is too much at pains to prove himself as the critic at large. Thus, while his responses are generally the workings out of a sensitive, intelligent reader with a finer turn of phrase than most of us could manage, they are seldom the workings of a person with a lifelong commitment to challenging his first understandings of culture and and its meaning. But while this critical stance leaves the essays feeling transient - trapped in the moment when James got it, or got himself - it is a stance that doesn't necessarily detract from James' travel writing.

More on that in a post to come. Let's turn first to the James reviewing style, which if "against interpretation" is also intelligent, fast-paced, and driven by a commitment to his style. Take this passage:

Now, in The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes, an Australian-born critical writer of pronounced literary gifts, has summed up all previous efforts, exceeded them in force of expression, and brought the whole deadly business back to life. The result is hard to bear — or would be, if it were not so clearly one of those rare achievements in the writing of history by which the unimaginably inhumane is brought to book without making us give up on humanity. Such redemptive work can’t be done without artistry: there are degrees of anguish which only style can make us contemplate, since merely to recount them would leave us cold. ("A Death in Life", 1987)

What is the point of this paragraph? I suppose merely that good writing is humane, sympathetic, well-crafted - hardly a new or particularly insightful idea. But James has put a lot of work into getting the precise expression of that point right, especially in the note, the unimaginably inhumane is brought to book without making us give up on humanity. It is true, though, as James writes, that there are degrees of anguish which only style can make us contemplate, and so he is careful to show us his style credentials. Essentially, James is being a wit again, dazzling us not so much with the force of analysis as with the way its phrased. And this, he is adding in his comments about The Fatal Shore, is just as important.

Having now read much of James' non-fiction, I suspect he writes to lines, good sentences that he perfects in his mind and then builds paragraphs around. I don't think there's much wrong with this - from a pacing viewpoint, there is much right about it - but I have found myself becoming practiced at waiting for the beautiful phrase or thought, the one that James got right first and then built out from. Here are some from his 1986 review of Bob Geldof's autobiography:

Bob Geldof's autobiography could not be more personal if he had written it himself.

Geldof's sense of humour lacks the calculation to make you laugh.

When a pop act becomes successful there are only two kinds of money it can earn - not as much as you might think and more than you can believe.

Being such modern young people they had a baby to find out whether they wanted to get married.

He was precocious in a society where precocity was antisocial.

These are all great lines, but also perhaps a little too good: clever writing that reveals such a lot about the writing process. So what? Merely that James has it in mind to entertain his reader, and believes, like Robert Hughes, that good style is a precondition of a proper understanding. Perhaps one other thing: that good style matters if you're correcting others.

And so, I think, does openness, and the fact that Clive James likes books by Robert Hughes and Bob Geldof reminds us that one of the features of his critical oeuvre has been a willingness to move across the borders between popular and elite culture that constrain many critics. That wall came down early in James' writing, and, as we will see in his writing about Germany, helps him greatly when it comes to writing postcards.