Saturday, December 04, 2010

Is There a Literary Boys' Club?

An amusing and/or depressing spat last week between Robert McCrum and novelist Amanda Craig. The trigger was a piece by Craig on the website of the excellent Fiction Uncovered (which I really should have blogged about and would have done so had I not been so tied up with promoting my latest publication, and you probably already know about it but if not then I shall trust you to jump on the link and speed on over there and find out about a Really Good Thing.)

Anyway, one wonders what McCrum thinks about Fiction Uncovered - an Arts-Council aided idea to seek out and promote good writers who haven't so far received the attention they deserve - since his objection to Craig's article seems out of all proportion, and indeed he seems wilfully to misinterpret her. Craig's argument is that none of her own generation has received the kind of acclaim that some in the generations either side of it have done. Here's the central paragraph in which she makes it:
Those younger than us, such as Sarah Waters, Maggie O’Farrell, Zadie Smith, Philip Hensher and Monica Ali, rose to prominence earlier and faster, fanned by national prosperity; my generation has had a long struggle to be seen at all. We have worked in the shadow of the Amis-McEwan-Barnes-Rushdie generation, and the recession of the 1980s, and by the time we published, usually in our mid-thirties, a second wave of younger talent had risen up and overtaken us.
Craig's chief point here is that the generations of writers either side of her avoided the recession which hit the generation to which she belongs, and there is an implied premise that national prosperity is good for writers' reputations and recession isn't. It's true that she also refers to the 'shadow' of the 'Amis-McEwan-Barnes-Rushdie generation' as an impediment, and it's this which McCrum jumps on, and here's how he interprets it:
Craig's complaint ... is that Amis et al have somehow prevented a generation of writers from getting their due recognition... If this boys' club had not sucked all the oxygen out of the literary ecosphere, says Craig – with no real evidence for her assertion – we would now speak of Chambers, Jensen etc in the same breath as ...
Whoa...! That's a whole load of extrapolation from one brief phrase. Maybe, since Craig goes on to point out that it is above all the women of her generation who have been most overlooked, she is implying the existence of a 'boys' club', but she accuses Amis, McEwan, Barnes and Rushdie themselves of nothing (where's the evidence for that?). Now McCrum, one of those with the power to overlook or champion talents and provide or deny the oxygen of newspaper publicity, is of course the great champion of this quartet, and his reaction seems knee-jerk enough to imply a sorely hit nerve.

He even gets insulting:
Really good writers are not troubled by brilliant contemporaries [See, Craig, he seems to be saying, if you were any good you wouldn't be moaning]... Strong talents are galvanised by rival artists not crushed by them. Or they go their own way, making their own good fortune. They are not cowed by top dogs.
Ah, those 'top dogs'! So there are top dogs - those who have somehow managed to 'suck all the oxygen out of the literary ecosphere' in spite of there being other strong talents! In resorting to the language of elitism, McCrum only brings down on himself the very suspicions he's so anxious to avoid. He goes on to object 'that there are also (among reviewers) many experts in tall-poppy syndrome, knives poised'. Tall poppies too, eh - those who have gained all the nutrients/cash and consequent attention? (Though the only example of tall-poppy-slashing he comes up with is Tibor Fischer's hatchet job on Amis's Yellow Dog.)

'If Craig and her disappointed contemporaries have had such a hard time,' he asks with a tone that smacks shockingly of playground in-crowds, 'why has it been (apparently) so easy for Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters, Monica Ali and Philip Hensher? Could it be that these literary arrivistes are, er, actually better?' but concludes in the very language of the pompous gentleman's club he'd like to disprove: 'Maybe posterity will be kinder to Ms Craig and her contemporaries. For the moment, the jury is still out. Harsh, but true.'


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