Literary Criticism Gets Reviewed

In the current issue of Commonweal magazine, novelist and critic William Giraldi is interviewed by the magazine’s book columnist Anthony Domestico. Giraldi’s collection of essays and criticism American Audacity was publshed earlier this year. After a wide- ranging discussion of the status of literary criticism today, the focus of the interview shifts to the 20th century, and Evelyn Waugh becomes a topic. According to Giraldi:

Near the middle of the last century, Cyril Connolly lamented “the sycophantic torpor of reviewers,” and we see a similar torpor today. But before we pivot to that, I want first to point out that Connolly’s age, like the late British nineteenth century, saw some eviscerating book criticism. Let me quote this savage bit by Evelyn Waugh on Stephen Spender:

“At his christening the fairy godparents showered on Mr. Spender all the fashionable neuroses but they quite forgot the gift of literary skill. At one stage of his life Mr. Spender took to painting and, he naively tells us, then learned the great lesson that “it is possible entirely to lack talent in an art where one believes oneself to have creative feeling.” It is odd that this never occurred to him while he was writing, for to see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sèvres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.”

Amazing, right? Waugh was a Tory Catholic who found Spender’s bohemian homosexuality repellent, so you can taste the personal acrimony in those lines, which of course is not aboveboard. But the other thing to remember is that Waugh was one of the best-read writers of his age, and that reading allotted him a supreme confidence in his own abilities and assessments. He’s being performative in that review, showcasing the depth of his literacy and the earned ferocity of his decisiveness, but he’s also measuring Spender against “the best that is known and thought in the world,” as Arnold has it: he’s measuring Spender against the vibrant complexities of the canon, employing what Arnold calls an “inflexible honesty, with due ability.” You see the same inflexible honesty and due ability in the best American criticism of the last century, from Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling to Elizabeth Hardwick and Mary McCarthy to James Baldwin and Susan Sontag, and you can see it today in our best critics, from Cynthia Ozick and Harold Bloom to Adam Kirsch and Katie Roiphe. And there’s strong American precedent there: just look at how Poe dismantled Longfellow or how Twain ravaged Fenimore Cooper.

The quote is from Waugh’s 1951 review of Spender’s memoir World Within World. It appeared in the Tablet and was reprinted in A Little Order and EAR.

The website Literary Hub, supported by a collective of publishers and booksellers, has undertaken a project of identifying the most important books (fiction, poetry and nonfiction) in each decade of the 20th century. A list of the top 10 books in each decade is compiled by Emily Temple, one of the website’s regular contributors. Temple provides this explanation of her selection methodology:

Though the books on these lists need not be American in origin, I am looking for books that evoke some aspect of American life, actual or intellectual, in each decade—a global lens would require a much longer list. And of course, varied and complex as it is, there’s no list that could truly define American life over ten or any number of years, so I do not make any claim on exhaustiveness. I’ve simply selected books that, if read together, would give a fair picture of the landscape of literary culture for that decade—both as it was and as it is remembered. Finally, two process notes: I’ve limited myself to one book for author over the entire 12-part list, so you may see certain works skipped over in favor of others, even if both are important (for instance, I ignored Dubliners in the 1910s so I could include Ulysses in the 1920s), and in the case of translated work, I’ll be using the date of the English translation, for obvious reasons.

She has recently reached the 1920s1930s and 1940s when Evelyn Waugh was at his peak productivity. Given her American-centric methodology, it is perhaps not surprising that none of Waugh’s books make the top 10 lists.  Several are, however, included in the follow-on lists that contain the books considered close to the top in compiling the collection: Decline and Fall (1928), A Handful of Dust (1934); Scoop (1938) and Brideshead Revisited (1945). As an example of the scope of the selections, the 1930s Top 10s included the literary classics Brave New World, Nightwood and Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as well as The Joy of Cooking, How to Win Friends and Influence People and Gone with the Wind. The list for the 1950s is awaited.

An interview of Francoise Gilot (not primarily known as a literary critic) was recently published in the New York Times. This was on the occasion of the publication of her Three Travel Sketchbooks. She was the lover of Pablo Picasso and mother of two of his children. Despite the unkind things said about Picasso by Evelyn Waugh, this interesting bit of information turns up in the interview, which took place in Gilot’s Upper West Side apartment:

Narrative has always been paramount to Ms. Gilot. The floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that line the walls of her apartment, which is just down the block from the Hotel des Artistes, are a testament to her literary mind. Visual monographs on Claude Monet, Francis Bacon and, yes, Picasso are shelved alongside volumes of T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare and Evelyn Waugh. She has published collections of her own verse, and even these sketchbooks contain full pages devoted solely to her handwritten text. “I was always good with poetry and letters,” she said.

UPDATE (26 October 2018): Literary Hub has now posted Emily Temple’s lists of books that made the 1950s and 1960s, and none of Waugh’s books are listed.

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