The startling proliferation of creative writing courses in the early 21st century suggests that the idea of a literary career has lost none of its romantic appeal, but DJ Taylor’s compendious account of English literary life in the past 100 years offers an antidote to the notion that writing is a glamorous or profitable trade.
From the muscular Georgian poet and editor, JC Squire (“effectively destitute”) to the post-war novelist Julian McLaren-Ross, the model for X Trapnel in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time (“on his uppers”) and the former Angry Young Man, John Braine (“Ate his final Christmas dinner in a community centre, surrounded by down-and-outs”), Taylor chronicles the lows (and rarer highs) of literary life since the First World War. The starting points of his study are the voluminous questions, “What is ‘literary culture’? And what is ‘taste’?” Examining these intractable issues from every imaginable perspective—academic, critical, journalistic, authorial and commercial (the passages on how writers earn a living make grimly fascinating reading)—Taylor conjures pungent portraits of the century’s major (and minor) literary figures.
“Indefatigable” and “cheery” are recurrent adjectives, and his book is both, enlivened by a bracing strain of literary bitchery. The tone is predominantly masculine (the chapter titled—after the 1979 Dire Straits song—Lady Writers is unlikely to win Taylor many female admirers) and, as he approaches the contemporary literary scene, cautious to the point of evasiveness. The contemporary writer, he concludes, is beset by all the “Enemies of Promise” defined by Cyril Connolly in his 1938 literary autobiography. It is an observation both melancholy and strangely reassuring.