D. J. Taylor Explores Literary Reputations

In today’s Guardian (May 10, 2014), critic and novelist D.J. Taylor discusses the survival of literary reputations: Literary Hero to Zero.  Later in the day, he presented a broadcast on BBC Radio 4 entitled Pulped Fiction, containing interviews, archival recordings and commentary relating to the same subject. (The broadcast, part of the series Archive on Four, can be heard online until May 17 on BBC iPlayer at the link above.) In both cases, Taylor points out how some writers’ reputations, such as those of Angus Wilson and Iris Murdoch, have unexpectedly dropped after their deaths.  In others, such as those of Virginia Woolf and Barbara Pym, they fell off the charts only to enjoy a later revival.

Taylor, in the Guardian article, credits the popularity of the 1980s TV series of Brideshead Revisited with the survival of Waugh’s reputation. He claims that this wave of popularity resulted in six-figure profits enjoyed by Waugh’s estate in the mid-1980s.  In the radio program Taylor interviewed novelist and critic David Lodge, Honorary President of the Waugh Society.  Lodge noted that, towards the end of his career, Waugh’s reputation had fallen into “considerable disfavor” among the critics , giving as example the Observer’s review panning  Men at War. But what saved Waugh’s reputation, according to Lodge, was the classic status accorded the best of his works. They meet Lodge’s test of a really good novel–that it can be re-read endlessly.

The interview of Lodge took place at a literary festival in Norfolk, something Taylor thought would have appalled Waugh if he had been asked to appear. In this he perhaps overlooks the fact that Waugh was a master of the literary publicity machine as it existed in his day and used the press and broadcast media to great advantage in keeping his name before the public, even if he sometimes used outrageous behavior to do so. One can easily imagine Waugh drawing crowds at today’s literary festivals as part of his own publicity efforts. After all, by the time he died, Waugh had managed to begin what would probably have become a successful career in the new medium of TV. Although he professed to be appalled by its content, that didn’t prevent him from using TV effectively to promote his own career.

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