Is there life in the old dog yet?

10 May
D J Taylor

D J Taylor (left) with Matt Holland ©Calyx Picture Agency

10th May 2016

DJ Taylor – on the life of Literature in Britain – The Prose Factory

 The purpose of this chronicle is not to offer up a review of D J Taylor’s latest tome The Prose Factory – a 200,000-word examination of the life of literature in England. Bigger and better folk than I have already opined on its success, or otherwise, of achieving its objectives. But, as Taylor’s entertaining and humour-injected talk today was centred around it, we should look at it.

Looking at The Guardian’s review from earlier this year, I was drawn to their comment that “Taylor is firmly on the side of ‘ordinary readers, always on the look out for ‘snootiness’.” I like that because I consider myself to be an ‘ordinary reader’.

 To quote Lynne Truss (Eats, Shoots and Leaves), being burned at the stake as a witch is not far enough off the agenda, so I hesitate a tad to admit this, but: I don’t much care for ‘highbrow literature’. Or, at the very least, I don’t care for much highbrow literature. With a passing apology to fans of Saint Virginia – I’m not fond of the modernist’s output. I’d almost prefer Jeffery Archer – note I said ‘almost’. I don’t see the virtue in writing poems and novels that require an Oxbridge degree in the Classics to begin to penetrate them. But then you could do that when you lived off shares and dividends and had the means to print your own material.

So I was rather tickled by Mr Taylor’s revelation that James Joyce, William Conrad and Virginia Woolf all submitted pieces to Titbits magazine back in the day. Who’d have thought? She who, we were told, denounced JB Priestley as a ‘tradesmen of letters’. How very dare she?

If, as D J Taylor argues, T S Eliot’s The Wasteland is the threshold that must be crossed to enter into ‘highbrow’ literature – well, I’d probably rather stay out in the cold. Along with The Magi. And the middlebrow.

Taste Test

 But of course it’s all a question of taste isn’t it? And the question of taste is, confessed Mr Taylor, one of the questions that obsessed him when writing his book and has done so since he first started writing about books back when God was a lad. Well a while back anyway.

How do questions of taste become transmitted? And how and why do tastes change over time?

In the 1890s Thackeray was the best thing since sliced bread – some years later it became Dickens. And for rather un-literary reasons too. So literary tastes change and the question of why they do is something he tackles in his book.

The second question Taylor set out to answer in The Prose Factory is that of a literary culture and what such a beastie might be. For him it’s the entire process: the way in which a book is conceived in the mind of the writer, to how they are published, brought to market and pushed in to our wider consciousness – sometimes taking on a life of their own – whether ‘warranted’ or otherwise.

To illustrate that point he entertainingly described a time when working in a bookshop and a very obscure, scholarly book by a French historian was featured as a Radio 4 book of the week. Suddenly the book caught on – to such an extent that people would come into the shop asking only for the ‘French book’ and the staff knew what was meant.

So these questions, starting in around 1918 to the present day, are what The Prose Factory is about.

As I was listening to, and enjoying, Taylor’s talk I began to feel that I would have found his chronicling jolly useful background to my own studies and my own chronicling of British fiction – middlebrow and highbrow. He spoke of so much that we covered in those modules. Two years too late Mr Taylor! Darn it!

The death of the novel

So if The Prose Factory concerns itself with the life of literature in England and Britain: is there one? Should we be donning our mourning clothes and writing the obituary for the death of the novel?

I’m not so sure.

Given the plethora of thriving literature festivals happening the length and breadth of this sceptered isle, Swindon’s 23 yr old lit fest and feast being one, I wouldn’t put money on it just yet.

The methods of ‘reading’ may have changed – tablet computing and E-books being examples – but the accessing of literature, of books, continues apace.

But then that’s always been the case. Scrolls gave way to the printed page and now the printed word has, if not given way completely, been supplemented by modern technology. Some of which might not be that new after all: back in his day Dickens wrote for readers who were largely illiterate. They came to his books by attending ‘subscription teas’ or performances where they were read to. So the iTunes of his day really?

Now, posited Taylor, is a great time to be reader. It’s possibly less great to be a writer in the current climate.

There are problems. Our appetite for, and seemingly unlimited access to, cheap books has a downside. While we now have lots of very inexpensive books what we probably also have is a reduced variety and arguably quality. Witness the rise of the self-published and all-too often unedited and un-proofread novel.

And of course books have to vie with other forms of entertainment for our apparently limited attention span.

But then given that Greta Garbo supplanted Great Expectations when the silver screen came into our lives and given that books, and indeed books about books, are very much in evidence in our lives in various forms, I reckon it’s fair to say that literature in Britain is alive and kicking.

D J Taylor appeared at Swindon Arts Centre as part of Swindon Festival of Literature, 10 May 2016.

Chronicle written by Angela Atkinson AKA Born Again Swindonian AKA AA Editorial Services.

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