Book review: Essays on Literary Culture & Public Debate by Stefan Collini

March 24, 2016
OUP, £30

Stefan Collini’s latest book is a collection of essays on British literary and intellectual culture from the early 20th century to the present day, including figures such as JB Priestley, CS Lewis, William Empson and Christopher Hitchens. Collini is preoccupied not just with the books and essays they produced, but also by the fact that their work is shared—held, to borrow his favoured term—in common.

The commonality is important because Collini, a professor of intellectual history and English at Cambridge, wants to address how writers have “figured... in wider public discussion,” and how they have shaped the culture in doing so.

Collini offers a series of companionable, entertaining and often insightful considerations of his subjects. He has a gift for evoking a powerful sense of a particular writer’s work and personality; his attention to their use of language is usually careful, sensitive and revealing; and he shows a willingness to argue against himself that lends his judgements extra subtlety, interest and weight.

There are shortcomings. Some of the essays lack argument and analysis; many are afflicted by hackneyed expressions (Maurice Bowra could appear “a complete monster”; CS Lewis’s “star was waning”; a biography of Empson has “finally... seen the light of day.”) But at their best, they offer a rich and rewarding view of some of the most complex and interesting figures to have contributed to British intellectual life in the past century and more. They do so in a style that feels like friendship.