"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Friday, 23 May 2008

The Survival of the Essayist


Reading John Gross, author of The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, in today's TLS, on the continuing role of the essayist (he was reviewing Stefan Collini's Common Reading collection of essays) at a time of high academic specialisation, I shared Gross's (and Collini's) uncertainty about the future of this phenomenon. As a non-academic writer (in the sense of not having any university affiliation) I have sometimes fallen into the trap of academic-baiting. But the old conflict between Grub Street and Academe now seems merely self-indulgent. All those who care about literature and its continuing life in modern societies need to pull together these days. Trying to think of a good example I decided that Primo Levi was a fine representative of the essayist and his "To a Young Reader" in Other People's Trades was one of his best. One of his pieces of advice in this essay was to show work to other people but: "Not another writer: a writer is not a typical reader, he has preferences and peculiar fixations, faced by a beautiful text he is envious." Levi also added that his stylistic goal was "that of maximum information with minimum clutter". That wouldn't have got him a job in a department of English in, say, 1990.

9 comments:

Mark Thwaite said...

My hope and belief is that the essayist will, as the blogosphere develops and matures, find an increasing place online: neither Academe nor Grub Street might be our rallying cry!

Martyn Everett said...

The problem with academia is that forces writers into a kind of style straight-jacket that obscures more than it reveals. This seems particularly true of literary criticism where an alienating style conceals what is often an interesting idea. Academic writers all too often seem to be writing for other academics and not for a wider readership.

Jool L said...

I take issue with the Primo Levi classification of "typical reader". Yes, writers are special, but try subsituting "typical person" or "typical banana-eater" for "typical reader" in this quotation and watch the idea collapse.

Andrew K said...

On the lines of Jool's comment, any reader could also be described as having preferences and peculiar fixations. Is there a common man existing somewhere outside the halls of literature who exists as this blank page of a persona devoid of such traits? In itself it's a very literary concept- the typical reader. Certain types of books may have broadly 'typical' readers, eg the Mills & Boon reader presumably not typically a military type.
Though on the other hand, perhaps it makes a lot more sense to talk of a 'typical academic' in terms of presumably somewhat anal characterists. 'Typical reader' is perhaps an attempt at the elegant ideal of maximum information with minumum clutter, but if the sweep of a generalisation is too broad it simply becomes meaningless.

Nicholas Murray said...

I wonder if something might have been lost in translation here? By "typical reader" he might have meant "dispassionate reader" or "reader with no axe to grind" as opposed to a competitive fellow-writer over-anxious to find fault. Are musicians, for example, harsher critics of each other than people in the audience? I don't know. Sometimes it works in the opposite way and fellow-practitioners are cosily over-protective of each other.

bernard n. shull said...

i did a little research after you told me about your "thing", and if you want a way to make more money using your your blog you can enter this site: link. bye.

Andrew K said...

I think you should tell all about your "thing", Nicholas. Sounds fascinating.

Nicholas Murray said...

This is a piece of spam (blogspam?) and if there is more of it I'll have to control access which I don't really want to do. I have been away for 2 weeks hence haven't had time to deal with it.

Andrew K said...

I was just poking fun at the spam itself. Didn't seriously think it to be anything else.