Monday, September 12, 2005

In critical condition

Professor John Sutherland had an article in Saturday's Financial Times. Sutherland is an emeritus professor of English Literature at University College, London, chairman of this year's Booker panel, columnist for the Guardian, regular reviewer for the FT, and an all-round regular expert and consultee on matters bookish. Saturday's article concerned the nature and status of British book reviewers.

Let me say at the outset that I have much more time for Sutherland than you might expect, given the unfriendly things that I have said about the Eng. Lit. lot from time to time. He has written some very readable and entertaining books, such as Is Heathcliff a Murderer? Given that most discussions of Eng. Lit. are conducted in impenetrable gobbledygook, we really should be grateful that Sutherland writes in a manner that us groundlings can comprehend.

His article on reviewers in the UK press is, as you would expect, interesting and informative. And, given this eminent professor's background, it is not remotely surprising to find that he repeatedly assumes that there is something called 'serious literature' or 'literary fiction' which is inherently more valuable and important than mere trash such as detective stories or science fiction. 'The wheat must be separated from the chaff', he tells us. But we could hardly expect a professor of Eng. Lit. to hold any other view (despite the existence on this planet of John Carey).

No, what surprises and distresses me is what Professor Sutherland says about the nature of certain reviewers. He reminds us -- well, actually, I never knew this -- that reviewing began in the UK in 1817, with a journal called The Gazette. This was set up by a 'hucksterish publisher' named Henry Coburn (nicknamed the Prince of Puffers), and it was designed to do two things: to puff Coburn's own publications and to hatchet those of his rival publishers.

And then Sutherland says something that worries me.
These two irreconcilable elements -- the high-minded and the hard-nosed -- have jostled uneasily ever since. At one pole is George Steiner -- every thinking person's favourite polyglot big-brain. At the other are 'quote whores' -- venal reviewers (so called) whose only function is to fawn or attack on command and for a price.
Now that worries me, as I say. So far as I can discover, George Steiner is alive and well. And Sutherland uses the present tense in the last sentence. So what are we to make of that? Are we to deduce that our columnist believes that there are, even today, reviewers who will 'fawn or attack on command and for a price'?

I must have misunderstood this, mustn't I? Surely it isn't possible that such wickedness survives in the twenty-first century. Say it ain't so, John. Please.

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