May 25 2023
A reviewer reviewed: Paul McDonald browses a selection of essays by D J Taylor compiled under the title CRITIC AT LARGE
Critic at Large: Essays and Reviews 2010-2022 D.J. Taylor Shoestring Press ISBN: 9781915553195 192 pp £10
Just over twenty years ago my publisher phoned to tell me that The Times would be printing a review of my first novel the following day. Naturally I found myself hammering on the newsagent’s door at dawn, speculating feverishly about the future cover quotes I might lift from a positive appraisal. Tearing through to the review section, I found a thumbnail image of my novel beside a three hundred word piece that concluded with the phrase ‘mildly diverting’. My partner talked me down off the roof by reminding me that I too had written my share of lukewarm reviews, and perhaps I should accept the experience as a chastening reminder that authors have feelings. Wise words. I mention this because D.J. Taylor recalls a similar experience in ‘Why Review Books?’, the concluding essay of Critic At Large. As a young writer, the commissioning reviews editor of the Sunday Times phoned to warn him that a ‘really bad’ review of his novel was due to appear in that week’s edition: after ‘36 hours’ of fretting the review finally appeared to declare that his precious labour of love was ‘about as much use as a one-legged man in a butt-kicking competition’. Fortunately, as a book reviewer himself, Taylor was able to be philosophical about it: ‘if you live by the sword, you must expect to die by it as well’.
Taylor has some history of wielding the sword: his early book, A Vain Conceit, for instance, spent much time wittily disparaging the literary heavyweights of the late twentieth century. I read it as a research student, unsettled to find that many of the writers I’d been thoughtlessly admiring were in fact rubbish. However, Taylor has always struck me as a fair-minded reader, and, not least, an entertaining one. This new book collects a number of reviews from journals like the TLS, The Guardian, and The New Criterion, with introductions to reprint editions of classics by, among others, Trollope, Gissing and Wells. It splits into five themed sections – Pre-moderns, Fiction, Portraits, Anniversaries, and Enthusiasms – which make sense in the main, although his essay about John Prescott, which you’d think belongs in Portraits, for some reason appears under Enthusiasms: curious given that Taylor isn’t particularly enthusiastic about him, despite his ‘uncanny resemblance to a [H.G.] Wells hero’; certainly the piece looks incongruous alongside Taylor’s other ‘enthusiasms’: Orwell, The Jam, and, of course, book reviewing.
There’s precious little sword-wielding in this volume, besides noting the ‘relative mediocrity’ of half the tales in Kingsley Amis’s Collected Stories, and a ‘surfeit of information’ in Julian Barnes’s Pulse. On balance, he is balanced. While he’s a bit sniffy about Alan Bennett’s status as a national treasure in his review of Keep On Keeping On, he praises the ‘sentences that only [Bennett] could have written’, and concludes by forgiving him ‘everything. Or nearly Everything’. Likewise Philip Hensher, whose ‘near Olympian fussiness’ he’s prepared to overlook in King of the Badgers, and David Lodge, whose memoir Quite A Good Time to be Born is a ‘sociologist’s paradise’, despite the fact that ‘500 pages is probably pushing it a bit’. He saves his less equivocal praise for the likes of Gissing, whose novel The Whirlpool may rank him alongside Hardy ‘as the last great Victorian novelist’, and Selina Hastings, whose Sybille Bedford: An Appetite for Life is a ‘comic masterpiece’.
Taylor’s criticism appeals to me because he’s an honest reader who writes beautifully himself, and there’s much to admire and enjoy here, not least his foray into 60s popular culture. His reflections on the Summer of Love, for instance, ends with a nice point about the ‘profound air of wistfulness’ in Sgt Pepper, and how ‘the cheery confidence’ of McCartney is ‘slyly counterpointed’ by Lennon; this leads to an eloquent reading of album’s cultural moment: ‘Even here,’ he says, ‘in the bright morning of the Summer of Love, the long afternoon of the Sixties stretches inexorably away into twilight’. While he’s not the first to notice the tensions in Sgt Pepper, or indeed in the Summer of Love, it’s hard not to admire his prose. His piece on the Yellow Submarine movie is similarly incisive, noting the divergent mix of historical tropes in a film that reflects the temper of the times like few other texts of the period:
As a piece of pictorial art it pulls off the difficult trick of looking both ways simultaneously: from one angle a snapshot of what the Sixties thought of the Sixties; from another a meditation on what the Sixties thought about the decades that preceded it; a celebration of a thronged and tumultuous decade which doubles as a melancholic farewell.
While the sword is mostly sheathed in Critic At Large, then, there are plenty of elegantly expressed insights from a writer with broad cultural awareness and nifty critical acumen.
In his introduction, Taylor references the modern age ‘where most people are terrified of saying in public what they really feel about anything’, but cites book reviewing as a space where writers remain less inclined to ‘follow the party line’. While there are no eviscerations here, we get the impression that Taylor is a sincere critic with a mind of his own: his reviews are candid, but never gratuitously hostile, offering informed and intelligent readings that unpack and illuminate the material. And while he makes the rather self-deprecating point that most book reviews have ‘a necessarily short shelf-life’, I’m glad there are still publishers who feel the best ones are worth preserving. Folks who aspire to write them could do worse than explore this volume – certainly it’s more use ‘than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking competition’, and considerably better than ‘mildly diverting’.