More McCrum

McCrum writes another marvellous article today in the Guardian/Observer, in which he argues – if I generalise his position a bit – that the worth of a writer is entirely dependent on the world socio-economic pre-dominance of the country in which he’s born.

OK, maybe he doesn’t say this precisely: – what he’s actually talking about is importance rather than worth. Though you may feel the latter is a little implied, especially since the article starts out on the subject of British books being judged, presumably on their merit, as worthy of winning American prizes.

[Importance (n.) Media, A measure of how many column inches should be devoted to a given topic].

Rather like, say, price and value in the stock market, one feels there is often little real correlation between worth and importance.

McCrum says:

No one puts it this way any more, but unconsciously we believe we [i.e. the British] are Greece to their [i.e. America’s] Rome.

No – I’d hazard to say, we don’t. (And this is to ignore the fact that I’d never correlate the British Empire – its outpourings, artistic or intellectual – with Greece). I shan’t speak for everyone else in this country, but personally I’ve always considered American literature to be its own entity – and it’s always a surprise to me that they’ve ever read anything that’s emanated from our country. The North American literary tradition (unlike perhaps the South American literary tradition) has never struck me as particularly influenced by any English or even European tradition, unless you wish to hold negative influence as influence – as in, we’ll develop our own fucking literary tradition which doesn’t have in it all of that feudal-based class-ridden aristocratic shit which we came over here to escape in the first place.. etc*. Consequently, I have difficulty with this view of a jaded patronage.

McCrum says:

The origins of British amour propre are not so hard to fathom. With the French, we were the first New Worlders, weren’t we?

Er … no, as I recall my history, we weren’t.


* Which reminds me, there’s a wonderful article here [well, their remote server seems to be down oh yeah, I found it now: – not quite where I expected] about how all worthwhile French writers since the 1960s have been influenced by the nouveau roman. The argument is wonderfully self-fulfilling. If a writer takes up the ideas of nouveau roman, then they are influenced; if they don’t take up the ideas, then they are also influenced. [The highly worthwhile, of course] Michel Houllebecq claimed (and I’m paraphrasing): “I hate the nouveau roman. I’ve never managed to finish a single book within that genre.” That apparently constitutes his influence and therefore his worth. – Great. It just remains now to define who are the worthwhile French writers and slot them into the categories.

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12 thoughts on “More McCrum

  1. Usually, I think the anti-McCrum posters exaggerate how careless his assertions can be, but that article is pretty bad.

    The ghosted memoirs of Sarah Palin will inevitably outshine anything written by Tony Blair. Come on, now – what does “shine” mean? The initial ‘sales’ of Going Rogue were fluffed by her publisher and ‘people’ giving the book away for the price of an autograph, and nobody believes that the tea-baggers are actually reading it.

    And it should be hideously embarrassing to Blair to be compared to Para Sailin in this way; however foolish he was for trusting the ‘grownups’ in the Rove administration not to be screw-ups, and however desperately feral his subsequent lying has been, if he ever comes clean, at least he can have been a clever – and not an absolute – failure. (For example, Blair gets some credit for Stormont, imperfect as the peace is doomed to be, does he not?)

    A new novel by Richard Ford […] will generate more column inches than one by any British counterpart. Really? – Richard Ford? More than the much-loathed Amis or Byatt? More than Wolf Hall‘s sequel will get? I don’t remember a single Ford blog at the Guardian in 2 1/2 years – I could easily have missed a couple, but several British novelists have gotten more attention than he or DeLillo has – and why not – it is a Londonish paper. Is the literary press in Britain really paying so much attention to Ford??

    And that “[w]ith the French, we were the first New Worlders” – is McCrum such a pooh bah that he doesn’t show his blogicles to anybody before he posts them?

  2. “…With the French, we were the first New Worlders, weren’t we?” What on earth does this mean? Doe he mean the English and the French were the first Europeans to reach the New World. He’s wrong. Does he mean they were the first European peoples whose languages enjoyed wide currency? Again: he’s wrong. In fact, I can’t think of any sense in which that statement could be construed as ‘right’.

    As for Ford, I don’t see him getting much press over here. I don’t think there’s much taste for that kind of sub-Hemingwayesque prose. Personally, I found him as dull as a hoe. Still, de gustibus etc etc…

  3. Now I read it back over, I can’t decide whether he’s talking about things from an American viewpoint or a British one, or whether he’s vacillating between the two.

    This is particularly confusing in the sentence:

    The cry “the British are coming” may allude to the revolutionary wars. It is also the batsqueak of a defunct imperial instinct.

    One would have thought only the Americans could cry, “The British are coming!” (as, indeed, seems to be the case at the beginning of the article) – so how can it then be a “batsqueak of a defunct [British?] imperial instinct”? – Unless, perhaps, he’s thinking of a specific British literary community living in America around whom he spends a lot of his time hanging, saying it in a sort of “Here come the cavalry” type way.

    I think McCrum is too powerful to need editing.

    Now I shall read his new article about Globish. It promises to be good. (The man in the demonstration with the placard saying “Freedom of Expression Go To Hell” is a moment of genius).

  4. Ford – yes, I find him tedious too; – but I think you underestimate the market for dull Hemingwayesque prose.

  5. Speaking of Hemingway, I experienced a small miracle today. In a local charity shop (The Spitalfields Trust, a charity devoed to preserving Hawksmoor’s Christ Church) I found a near-perfect copy of A Stone, A Leaf, A Door: Poems by Thomas Wolfe with its dust-jacket.

    It’s the 1945 Scribner first edition and the dust-jacket is in very good condition, after 65 years. No special care has been taken of the book (no shrink-wrapping or anything). Astonishing. 0.90 pence I paid. The Hemingway connection is Maxwell Perkins, who is listed as the copyright holder (executor).

    The ‘poems’ are actually pieces of prose taken from Wolfe’s novels and laid out as verse. In the introduction, Louis Untermeyer has the decency to acknowledge that ‘…it may be objected that the editor tries to make Wolfe a poet by manipulation, by a mere typographical trick.’

    Yes, Louis, it may well indeed. However, to be fair, I shall have a read of the ‘poems’ before I judge but a perusal doesn’t inspire confidence…

  6. It is a spiritual lesson, Mish, to teach you that the only consideration in buying a book should be its literary quality. Why else do you think the Devil put it there and decided only to charge 90p?

    That was another thing I was going to write a post about: how our society is doing away with musty old books; even charity shops only like new pristine editions these days – and it doesn’t help in discovering those long-unpublished obscurities I’m always after.

    Recently I picked up 4 novels by Anatole France, from about the 1920s – a writer much out of favour now but much in favour back then; and a novel by Deszo Kostolanyi, published only once in the 60s, a Hungarian writer I’m fond of. Oh yeah, and a novel called Guerrilla by Lord Dunsany, 1944, seemingly a 1st American edition (not that I care). – Soon, you won’t find any of these things. Only endless copies of recently published drivel no one wanted to read.

  7. “The North American literary tradition has never struck me as particularly influenced by any English or even European tradition, unless you wish to hold negative influence as influence – as in, we’ll develop our own fucking literary tradition which doesn’t have in it all of that feudal-based class-ridden aristocratic shit which we came over here to escape in the first place.. etc*.”

    That seems a bit extreme. The North American Literary Tradition has by and large been written in English by people generally well-schooled in their English lit from Beowulf to Shakespeare to Dickens. We study the English literary tradition at least as much as the North American in all levels of our educational system. I’d never thought of it in those terms before, but the literary formula of Greece:Rome :: England:U.S./Canada actually seems pretty apt to me.

  8. But Michael5000, your (accurate, in my experience) first point, emphasizing the literary continuity between England-English literature and American-English education in that language and literature, contradicts your second.

    Roman speakers were speaking Latin in Latium before the Homeric wepos had been written down anywhere, right? There were Greek-speaking colonies in ‘Italy’ throughout most of ‘Roman’ history – but ancient Greek and Latin are definitely languages foreign to each other, at least as foreign as, say, modern Greek and Italian.

    The American war for independence was a war between two groups of British subjects. 19th century American writers, like Poe and Whitman, may have felt themselves to have been growing, or to have grown, apart from their then-cousins in Britain; it was Twain, in my small knowledge, who is given the greatest credit for having successfully insisted on the national – and cultural – difference between himself and his peers and them furriners in Londinivm.

    But this splitting-away-from – never in denial (except tendentiously) of the recent commonality and continuing mutual, well, considerable (if not complete) intelligibility – is quite different from the reasonable self-understanding of the Latin speakers (and artists in every discipline), namely, that they were both copying and criticizing (and even repelling) a great, alien culture.

    I never thought the ‘America is “Rome” to Britain’s “Greece”‘ analogy was worth much more than a rough, cursory beginning of a conversation. The pairs are, in finer analysis, as distinct from each other – as pairs – as, say, the pair ‘China and Japan’ is from either.

  9. Yes, it was a bit extreme, and tendentious too. I recognise that in American schools you are taught English Literature – I am entirely conversant with American high-school culture. (I was just thinking in fact how strange it was that there is a whole genre of films devoted to the American high-school, and yet I can’t think of a single film about the British equivalent – If, but If is hardly representative, it is that eccentric variant the public school – and the boarding public school at that, so distant from the experience of most of the population. (Oh, no doubt there are some – I watch so little English cinema; it is hateful)). – There is a striking contrast perhaps: in England, we aren’t obliged to study any American writers at all (except, for some bizarre reason, Kate Chopin – perhaps because she ticks a few boxes, though we have female writers of our own I’m sure) – though individual schools / teachers can of course choose to do so (I myself studied Death of a Salesman I think three times).

    On the other hand – though I was sort of saving this idea from this blog altogether – I’m not convinced there’s an obvious connection between being au-fait with a literary tradition and being influenced by it. And this is because for writers (by which I mean significant writers, rather than the talentless mulititude), I’m not at all convinced that there is a strong literary influence – that their influences tend to be by and large non-literary, of whatever sort, their parents, the places they grew up in, the particular dialect spoken, the view of life etc. And where literary influences exist, there are likely to be literary: – that is to say, matters of pure style; at the most meta-literary ideas.

    Which is why I’d suggest that Americans have by and large been little influenced by English literature. They have been from the outset (or from Mark Twain, if you will) democratic in intention, hence their descent into the common journalistic style of simple sentences, simple language which seems to predominate (oh, there are exceptions) – which the British have themselves slavishly copied, for that hard-boiled Cotswolds feel. A non-elitist, anti-pretentious sort of thing, bereft of extravagance and colour, bereft of style. – That is to say, American writers – I feel – have been for a long time far more influenced by their own culture than by any English literary tradition.

    Hmm, I’ve been reading quite a bit about Chinese and Japanese cross-cultural influences of late – but not enough that I feel like saying anything definitive about the matter. The Japanese were very obsessed with Chinese culture back in about 800AD, and tried to import Chinese forms of government into a culture which was quite unsuited for it – which reminds me a bit of the Roman importing of Greek metrical patterns into a language quite unsuited for it.

    It is worth noting, in Graeco-Roman terms, that in general the majority of Romans had complete contempt for the Greeks and everything they stood for, culturally, morally, militarily. It was only a handful and poets and intellectuals (but then maybe it always is).

  10. yesterday in a Jamaican supermarket I witnessed a German Swiss woman, an Italian and (I think) a Croatian communicate with a check-out clerk in Globish. It was very basic (though not Basic English), but it worked. That’s Globish.

    You mean, non-English speakers go to an English-speaking country on holiday and attempt to communicate with the natives in their own language in order to achieve basic routine tasks. This is indeed a remarkable phenomenon, the like of which I’ve never heard.

  11. McCrum Enters Dead Horse In Grand National

    Speaking in Globish, Mr. Crum said “I’ve been flogging the bugger for months and I think the competition will do him good.”

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