Writers still form identifiable generations. For all their curmudgeonly individualism, the "angry young men" of the 1950s stood for something. By contrast, argues Allan Massie, the 1980s generation are disconnected and indifferent to life in Britainby Allan Massie / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Orwell’s essay Inside the Whale is principally concerned with Henry Miller, but it also includes an analysis of the different tendencies displayed by writers in the two decades between the wars. The most admired writers of the 1920s- Eliot, Joyce, Lawrence, Huxley-might not “look much like a group,” but showed “a certain temperamental similarity. What it amounts to is a pessimism of outlook.”
Then “quite suddenly, in the years 1930-35, something happens. The literary climate changes. A new group of writers, Auden and Spender and the rest of them, has made its appearance, and although technically these writers owe something to their predecessors, their ‘tendency’ is entirely different. Suddenly we have got out of the twilight of the gods into a sort of Boy Scout atmosphere of bare knees and community singing. The typical literary man ceases to be a cultured expatriate with a leaning towards the church, and becomes an eager-minded schoolboy with a leaning towards communism. If the keynote of the writers of the 1920s is ‘tragic sense of life,’ the keynote of the new writers is ‘serious purpose.'”
As literary criticism this is pretty slapdash-not the sort of thing that would meet with academic approval. Even as social criticism, it is somewhat cavalier. And yet there is something in the distinction Orwell makes. He may be wrong in detail, but you can’t escape the feeling that he has hit on a real difference. After all, writers do express attitudes to society in their work-sometimes consciously, sometimes not-and a look at the “tendency” of the writers who win favour or are fashionable in any period can be enlightening. I doubt whether many have read Orwell’s essay without thinking that their understanding has been improved.
A caveat must be entered. The writers who most clearly express the “spirit of the age” are not necessarily the best. In the list which Orwell gives of 1930s writers who display what he takes as this characte…