A case of mistaken identity
The writer and founder of The Week on literary spats and an unusual stop on a book tour
AMONG THE PLEASURES of editing my little English-literature guides is being reminded of how staggeringly rude novelists can be about each other. ‘One of the worst, weakest, least sane, most voulu [ie forced] books I have ever read,’ wrote Robert Louis Stephenson to Henry James about Tess of the d’urbervilles. ‘Oh yes, dear Louis, she is vile,’ agreed James. ‘The pretence of sexuality is only equalled by the absence of it.’ ‘A narrow-gutted spinster,’ said DH Lawrence of Jane Austen. How cross he would be to find no one reads him any more while she’s as popular as ever. Mark Twain would be cross too: ‘Any library is a good library if it has no book by Jane Austen in it,’ he said. It was a shame she’d died peacefully, Twain thought. ‘Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I long to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin bone.’ (The ‘every time’ is interesting. Why keep re-reading a book you hate so much?)
It’s one thing to be rude about an individual novelist; quite another to dismiss a whole literary tradition. In his 1960s book Love and Death in the American Novel, the brave New York critic Leslie Fiedler argued that most American classics were essentially infantile; it was no accident, he said, that they were usually to be found on boys’ bookshelves. ‘The mythic America is boyhood.’ Where, he wondered, was the American equivalent of grown-up books about women like Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary? (Henry James, he thought, belonged more to the European literary tradition.) Unlike Twain’s blast at Austen, there is much to be said for the Fiedler view: while there are notable exceptions – like Edith Wharton – many of the best American novels – Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, and indeed The Great Gatsby – are essentially ‘buddy novels’, about the relationship between men or men and boys, rather than men and women. Needless to say, Fiedler’s book was greeted with outrage from fellow critics.
I AM BUSY developing a new series of short books – the first three, out next month, are on the Second World War, slavery and the British empire. They’re aimed at time-pressed autodidacts – people who want to learn but find the prospect of reading 700 pages daunting. So how to promote them? I visited schools to spread the word, and once went to beautiful Bradfield College, near Reading, to address a small group of English teachers. Believing that showing is better than telling, I brought a suitcase of guides to impress them with. Standing up to speak, I heaved the case on to the table. But when I opened it I was shocked to find that it contained not books but an assortment of women’s clothing. Somehow, I’d managed to leave the train at Reading with someone else’s suitcase. Whether my fellow passenger ever retrieved her clothes from left luggage at Paddington, I never discovered, but I owe her a debt – the teachers still talk about it.
AS A COELIAC, I always carry gluten-free bread with me when I’m away. Nowadays, it’s more a habit than a necessity. Staying in the Caribbean last month, our hotel not only had gluten-free options on the menu, but several varieties of gluten-free bread. A few years ago, this would have been unusual to say the least. When I first went on the diet, aged nine, coeliac disease had scarcely been heard of, and though you could get gluten-free flour (with difficulty), my mother had to bake not just my biscuits and cakes but my bread too. Now gluten-free has taken over the world. I don’t feel quite so unusual any more. allyouneedtoknowbooks.co.uk; connellguides.com
When I opened the suitcase, I was shocked to find an assortment of women’s clothes