Anthony Burgess and the Observer – Confessions of the Hack Trade
Anthony Burgess wrote hundreds of articles for the Observer in a reviewing career lasting more than thirty years, and often referred to it as ‘my paper’. In this article, originally delivered as a memorial lecture for Observer literary editor Terence Kilmartin, he reflects on the job of the reviewer.
Confessions of the Hack Trade
Reviewers are lazy; critics are not. Reviewers are viewed by genuine writers with a mixture of foreboding and contempt. The status and, indeed, physical condition of the reviewer is summed up in a trenchant article by George Orwell. The man looks older than he is. He sits at a table covered with rubbish which he dare not disturb, for there may be a small cheque lying under it.
He began his sub-literary career as a genuinely literary one, with high hopes, noble aspirations. But he has sunk to the condition of a hack. He has learnt the trick of reviewing anything, including books he has no hope of understanding. He earns little money and is unlikely to earn the accolade of a state award for services to literature. Services to reviewing are not recognised either at Buckingham Palace or in the office of the Prime Minister. This despicable rat, gnawing away at the fringes of literature, is only ennobled by being one of a pack kept encaged by a literary editor. Or, to exalt the animal metaphor, an also-ran of his literary editor’s stable. In this image the term “hack” finds its proper connotation.
Literary editors, on the whole, are respectable members of society. They are literary men in a sense that reviewers are not. If we are prepared to speak of great literary editors, we must number the late Terence Kilmartin among them. I was never a member of the salaried reviewing team that came and went at the Observer, but, as a freelance writer, I did what reviewing work he requested from 1960 till the year he retired – and, of course, beyond.
Thus I knew him for about 30 years and can speak of his qualities. Terry will be remembered as a literary editor only by a comparatively narrow circle of book-lovers; his achievement as a translator ensures him a much larger public for a very long time. There was a time when we considered that the Scott Moncrieff version of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu was the supreme English Proust. Then Terry showed Scott Moncrieff where he had gone wrong. Terry, in my view, does not await further redaction.
What is the task of a literary editor? I am not sure, not having been one, though there was a time, about 20 years ago, when it seemed that I might take over the book pages of the Times or the Sunday Times or some such paper – certainly not the Daily Mirror or the News of the World. This would have been a full-time job, and I regard my full-time job as providing material for literary editors to hand over to reviewers.
The task is a typical newspaper one of turning books into a kind of news. Of the millions of events that happen daily, some are more newsworthy than others — man bites dog, and so on. And so some books are more newsworthy than others. There was once a Victorian study of urban drainage in Eccles properly called Odour of Sanctity whose title suggested it might be news, but good literary editors are never tricked by titles. If there are millions of events, there are also millions of books, or so it seems. Choice of the newsworthy entails more skill than the average newspaper reader can easily imagine.
For the average reader cannot imagine the immense number of books that are published until he has actually handled them. In the 1960s I was shocked to discover how many novels are published in a year. This was when I was given the job of fiction editor for the Yorkshire Post, a very reputable journal, much read in the dales and the clubs of wool and steel magnates. I had to furnish a fortnightly article in which five or six new books had to be given serious treatment and, in a kind of coda, 10 or so others granted a phrasal summation — like ‘All too putdo wnable’ or, rather ambiguous, ‘For insomniacs’, or ‘India encapsulated in a poppadom’ or ‘Sex on Ilkley Moor — baht more than ‘at’. When the stint began, in the January of 1960, I felt that it might be easy enough, for few novels arrived. I had forgotten that the New Year was always a slack time for publishing. As the year burgeoned, so did fiction. I was living in a small Sussex village, and extra staff had to be taken on at the local post office to cope with the flood.
The pay for the fortnightly article was very small — £6 in pre-decimal money — but the incidental rewards were considerable. Every other Monday morning I staggered to the local railway station, weighed down with two suitcases full of new fiction. The villagers, whose memories were short, assumed on each occasion that I was leaving my wife. These suitcases were emptied on to the floor of the back room of Louis Simmonds, a bookseller on the Strand. He paid 50% of the sale price of each book, in crisp new notes. This was non-taxable cash, and my walk back to Charing Cross Station was usually an irregular one.
The sale of review copies remains a source of income for hacks: they would be lost without it. Some really indigent hacks — I could name names but I won’t — have in their time sold their review copies without reading them, need being so great. The publisher’s blurb grants enough information for processing into a cautious notice. When a review is totally laudatory, lacking in “nevertheless”, you may assume that the book has not been read by the reviewer. My discovery of the vast number of novels published in Britain alone was, to me, disconcerting because I was trying to make a primary living out of adding to that number. The competition made my heart fail. And yet there were times when my heart lifted. For so many of the novels submitted for review were of a badness hardly credible. Yet they had got into print. Did aesthetic judgments truly operate in publishing houses? Nobody properly knows.
Given, in the batch for reviewing, a new novel by Greene or Waugh or Powell or Amis, I knew what had to be done, but there was always the possibility of some new genius turning up. One did not dare neglect anything, though there had been glaring examples of neglect in the annals of literary editorship. VS Naipaul told me that his first novel, now considered a classic, had not received a single review. My fourth novel failed to be noticed in several of the upmarket Sundays, and I assumed this was a conspiracy, which it probably was.
If you examine the archives of the now defunct magazine Punch for 1922, you will find reviews of Sheila Kaye-Smith and Ethel Mannin, but none of Ulysses or The Waste Land.
In 1939 there were hardly any reviews of Finnegans Wake, though the late Malcolm Muggeridge contributed a manifesto of total bewilderment to I forget what paper. Total bewilderment was not in order. Finnegans Wake had been appearing in pamphlets under the general title of Work in Progress all through the 1930s, and there were learned articles of exegesis around. But statements like “I find this a mass of total gibberish” are often excused in a mere reviewer. The situation is different for a critic.
Indeed, it is highly exceptional for a reviewer to behave like a critic, though, with the heavier periodicals that no longer exist, the two vocations could be regarded as identical. We have TS Eliot’s volume of Selected Essays, which were nothing but reviews reprinted from his magazine the Criterion. When I was an undergraduate, this tome, along with William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, was a vade mecum. Being by Eliot, it was assumed to be reliable. In it were definitive judgments on Marlowe, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the influence of Seneca on the Elizabethans, the Metaphysical poets. Some of the summations have, over the years, proved to be of very dubious validity. For instance, Eliot said that the Elizabethans took the five-act division from Seneca. But Seneca’s plays had no act divison; they were more likely to take it from Plautus. The epigrammatic serves well in a review but not in a critical essay. Marlowe’s genius was presented as comic in the sense that it went back to some ancient dark native tradition, but of this tradition we were never told, nor could we ever find it. Hamlet presented the problem of an emotion being in excess of any possible cause, and we still puzzle over what precisely Eliot meant. The trouble always was that Eliot could do no wrong. In his poem “Gerontion” he uses the phrase “In the juvescence of the year/ Came Christ the tiger’. “Juvescence” is wrong; it should be “juvenescence”, but Eliot would not be told. That solecism is in the Oxford English Dictionary and it has to be taken as an authentic form. I have been frequently whipped for whipping Eliot.
In the early days of reviewing, the days of the Edinburgh Review, despite the immense length of articles which granted the space and time for genuine critical exposition, the tradition of insufficient thought and attention and, more than that, the transmissible disease of waspishness and sheer malice seems to have been fully established. As Byron put it:
John Keats, who was killed off by one critique,
Just as he really promised something great,
If not intelligible, – without GreekContrived to talk about the gods of late
Much as they might have been supposed to speak.
Poor fellow! His was an untoward fate: –
‘Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,
Should let itself be snuffed out by an article.
It is doubtful if any writer was ever so snuffed out. A bad, meaning thoughtless, review can induce deep depression and sometimes a silence, which in a sense is death, in sensitive authors. This happened to the playwright Christopher Fry, who gave up producing verse plays when consistently attacked by malicious reviewers. One must, I suppose, ponder a little on that term “malice”, since it is doubtful if it can arise from the mere close perusal of a text. A text is not a person, though it may exhibit some facets of a personality. Reviewers prefer the personality for their target, not a text, and this relates them to their colleagues in the gossip columns.
I still smart from a review excreted by the late Geoffrey Grigson. In noticing a volume of essays I had published, he said: ‘Who could possibly like so coarse and unattractive a character?’ This, I think, was unjust and impertinent. Unfortunately, it is the sort of thing that the baser literary editors prefer to the impersonal weighing up of a text.
Terry Kilmartin was not one of these base promoters of malice. When he made mistakes it was rarely in the region of confusing gossip with serious, or semi-serious, appraisal of literary artefacts. He was balanced, and he did not even commit errors of taste, except on one occasion, when he headlined a review of a book on the position of women in the Roman Empire with “Lays of Ancient Rome”.
Yorkshire Post pains
With myself he made an error of judgment which still hurts a little. This sprang out of my own error of judgment when reviewing for the Yorkshire Post. I had become somewhat uneasy about throwing my reviews into what seemed like a great silence. Readers never responded to my reviews. I received only one letter from a Yorkshire Post reader, and that was a horticultural lady who responded to my incidental statement that British orchids had no smell. “They do, you know,” she wrote, and instanced many odorous varieties.
This had nothing at all to do with literature. I got into the habit of throwing untenable judgments at my presumed readers, saying, for instance, that Barbara Cartland was much influenced by Molly Bloom’s monologue at the end of Ulysses, or that one could descry the impact of DH Lawrence on Charles Dickens. Angry at the unangry silences, I determined to arouse some interest by reviewing a book of my own.
There was a precedent for this: Walter Scott had reviewed Waverley at great length in the Edinburgh Review and had not been trounced for it. There is something to be said for allowing a novelist to notice his own novel: he knows its faults better than any casual reader, and he has at least read the book. I published a novel entitled Inside Mr Enderby, which I’d issued under a pseudonym, and I reviewed this at some length in the Yorkshire Post, pointing out how obscene, how fundamentally unclean the work was, and warning readers against reading it.
A gossip columnist in the Daily Mail picked up my act of immoral import and gleefully reported it. I was attacked by the editor of the Yorkshire Post on Yorkshire Television and promptly, and perhaps justly, dismissed. But at that same time, I’d written for the Observer an article appraising new books by VS Naipaul, Iris Murdoch and Brigid Brophy. This could not be published, since I was now untrustworthy and might conceivably be all these authors, and more, masquerading under the name Anthony Burgess, a name that was itself a masquerade. This tremor of distrust was not typical of Terry Kilmartin. The distrust, anyway, did not last. Journalists are quickly forgiven, and this may be taken as one of the signs of the essential ephemerality of journalism. As a character in Ulysses says, “Sufficient unto the day is the newspaper thereof.”
But to return to this theme of malice. In his essay on the reviewer, Orwell made a very astute remark, to the effect that most books make no impression at all on the reviewer, and hence an attitude to the book must be contrived. One must fabricate a feeling towards something that arouses no feeling. Hence the conjuring of an attitude towards the author her or himself which, since the book has wasted one’s time, might as well be one of malice. I personally show malice very rarely; my general attitude towards any book, however bad, is one of vague sympathy. As one who writes books himself, I know how much hard work goes into authorship; hence the sympathy, which is probably not good journalism. But I can well understand why some reviewers develop an attitude, when given a book which they may not well understand or become bored with reading.
I published a novel about contemporary Russia at the time of my disgrace, and this was reviewed at some length in the New Statesman – I will not say by whom – and considered as a literary demonstration of my homosexuality. In those days it was still a crime to be homosexual, but I do not think that malice motivated my reviewer – perhaps rather the opposite, indicating the reviewer’s sexual tropism. Perhaps, perhaps not.
This review came at a very opportune time. People rarely fall in love with me, or fell at the time when I was young enough to be fallable in love with. But at this time a lady dentist had interpreted, much in the manner of Katisha in The Mikado, my affability, a natural attitude to a dentist, as lovability, meaning a willingness to engage in an adulterous relationship. She proposed that we make love in her surgery, using the dentist’s chair, and for all I knew various surgical instruments, as adjuncts to the act. It was very difficult to demur, since I was engaged in a fairly lengthy course of NHS treatment.
But my lady dentist regularly read the New Statesman, and thus she discovered from the aforementioned review that I was homosexual. I was able to tell her that I had fought against this aspect of my personality but without success. She understood, or professed to, and the dental surgery retained its clinical purity. This was the only time when a review proved useful, indeed salvatory. I never had to prove homosexuality, which would have been difficult for one who is boringly normal. I offer this anecdote to prove nothing.
A Brief History of Time
Nobody really understands why reviews do so little for books, while theatrical notices can, at least in New York, make or break a play. There was a time when Arnold Bennett could promote high success with a review in the Evening Standard. This has not happened since his day. The quite incredible success of A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking owes nothing to its reviews, though much to the newsworthiness of his physical condition. Its unintelligibility – as well as the physical condition of its author – is certainly a factor in its high sales record. Because, and this is particularly true in America, if a book is not easy to read it becomes a part of the furniture: the money paid out for it has not been wasted on an ephemeral and enjoyable object. TS Eliot said that a genuine writer should give up reviewing at the age of 35, nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. This entails, presumably, relegating the craft to the young and ill-read, the trendy, the alternative comedian. It is because of the pain that ignorance causes that some of us keep on with the work of reviewing even in old age.
Of course, old age means forgetfulness, which looks very much like ignorance. But it is through being reviewed that one learns how much ignorance resides in the reviewer. And along with ignorance, carelessness.
When in 1960 I produced a novel that dealt with London’s underclass, I was rebuked by a young Oxonian reviewer for using the term “kinky” — terribly old-fashioned. In fact, during the time of erotic leather gear, the word was coming back and I was a little before the trend. These annoyances are mere gnat-bites, but a multiplicity of gnat-bites feels like the onset of malaria.
Animals and clowns
Let us go back to the ringmaster of the reviewing animals and clowns. How does the literary editor decide what is to be reviewed and what not? One way of answering the question is to consider a definition of literature as the arrangement of language to an aesthetic end. It is, I think, true to say that the novels of Lord Archer, Dame Barbara Cartland and the late Dame Agatha Christie do not fall into the category of literature in this sense. Such writers are sometimes praised, though distractedly by people who should know better, because they get on with the action and do not let words get in the way of it.
In a sense it is quite impossible to review a novel by Frederick Forsyth, because it achieves perfectly what it sets out to do. The Fourth Protocol is perfection, as our last Prime Minister affirmed by reading it at least twice. The perfection depends on limitation. It does not dare the properties which we find, say, in William Shakespeare — complexity of character, difficulty of language, the exploitation of ambiguity.
Levels don’t come into it, only categories. Lord Archer belongs to Category A, Mrs Woolf to Category B. Category A tries to soft-pedal language and bring the narrative as close to the cinematic as possible. Category B regards language as a narrative character. Here is the beginning of critical wisdom, and it has to drift down to the mere reviewer. The literary editor has to contrive a balance between the needs of the lover of literature and those of the mere reader of books. Increasingly the latter establish a priority.
Book reviewers ought to be read, forgotten, and then used, along with reports of trade deficits and child abuse, to light the kitchen fire. But, to their shame, they survive in bibliographical archives. American scholars make sure of that. I cherish, as I cherish chronic dyspepsia, some of the reviews of my work that have been put together by my own American bibliographer. I will cite examples of malice that are engraved on my heart, such as it is. “Why are Mr Burgess’s books so loud?” – obviously a woman reviewer. “It seems a pity that Mr Burgess’s book is so bad” – another. “There is too much sex in this novel, and we are all sick of Mr Burgess’s scatology.” “I yawned on the first page and would have yawned on the last, if I had ever reached it.” “Mr Burgess would write better if he wrote less.” So it goes.
Should one fight back? Hugh Walpole used to do this, engaging in a kind of fisticuffs with Rebecca West, but he always got the worst of it. He also did what, in the persona of Alroy Kear, Somerset Maugham made him do in his novel Cakes and Ale. He would write to a reviewer to say that he was sorry he did not like his latest novel, but, if he might say so, the review was so well-written and contained so much good critical sense, that he could not forbear to drop him a line to say so. He does not want to be a bore, but if the reviewer is free any day next week, he, Alroy Kear, would be honoured if he’d accept a luncheon invitation at the Savoy.
As Maugham puts it, “No one can order a luncheon like Alroy Kear, and by the time the reviewer has eaten half a dozen oysters and a cut of some baby lamb, he has also eaten his words as well. So that it is not surprising that, in his review of Alroy Kear’s next book, he has found a vast improvement in all departments of his novel-writing technique.”
A writer who, in his spare time, conducts the craft of reviewing, is in a position to strike back. But to do so, as to indulge in reciprocal backscratching, is inglorious, totally unworthy. The editor of the Yorkshire Post, a year after he’d sacked me from my lucrative post of fiction reviewer, produced a book on the Balfour Declaration and the birth of the state of Israel. I reviewed this book with unqualified praise in Country Life. The author was overjoyed and rather astonished. He was grateful for my magnanimity and invited me to lunch at the Reform Club. I was able to write back that he could keep his lunch: I liked his book and continued to dislike him. This is what is known as total objectivity of approach. Books are objects, not adjuncts of personality.
Objectivity of approach is a reviewer’s right, privilege and duty. What he thinks of a book is something that subsists between the book and himself. Nor can he be told what to think and write. British literary editors, with, again, Terry Kilmartin as the supreme exemplar, are admirably disinterested in this respect. The New York Times sent me a rather boring spy novel by John le Carré, saying “As a special privilege, we are prepared to allot you 2,000 words to assess what is clearly an important book.” I sent 400 words, which was about what the novel was worth. I was regarded as insulting the literary editor’s taste and acumen: the author himself, of course, did not matter.
No, if one is to continue with the detestable craft of reviewing, detestable but necessary, one must maintain integrity. A book, however bad, has to be accorded sympathy, since it is so difficult a thing to produce; there is no agony like the agony of writing badly. The good literary editor appreciates this, and it is a good thing for him to be confronted daily with the worse agony of trying to write well, or at least translate well.
Terry Kilmartin, giving us Marcel Proust for our time, was no Olympian residing above the sweat and headaches. Jorge Luis Borges liked to visualise heaven as a vast library, in which, his blindness cured, he was able to read for ever. I think that Terry, in whatever heaven has admitted him, will find less a library than a bureau, vast in extent, which daily, perhaps hourly, has new books dumped on its desks. The thrill of the new book, clean and shining, fresh from the binder, sustains both the reviewer and his master. Like the thrill of the sexual encounter, it does not last, but it can be renewed. And there is always the hope of a masterpiece. That’s why we go on.
Literary editors live in a world of dilemmas. Journalism lives on compromise. I give a hypothetical example of the pain of choice. Two books came to me, not in my capacity as reviewer, on the same day. One was a biography of the British film producer David Puttnam responsible, among other things, for Chariots of Fire, an Oscar-winning masterpiece. The other was the record of a symposium on the so-called bad quarto of Hamlet. I had no doubt which was the more important book. The Shakespeare scholars had come up with new facts. They had worked out what this traditionally disgraceful pirated version of Shakespeare’s tragedy represented. It was a blaze of light on the dark world of scholarship.
But who, among the readers of the upmarket Sunday papers, would really care? Most, having seen the film Chariots of Fire, with an easily scratchable itch of curiosity about the state of the British cinema industry, would see this biography of Puttnam, despite its being ill-written and pedestrian, as – I use quotation marks – “relevant”. It’s clearly not the responsibility of literary journalism of an unspecialist kind to deal with the arcana of Shakespeare scholarship. And yet one regrets this.
In the same way, the reviewer himself must not pretend to too much learning, or use words not found in the Shorter Oxford. He may not even quote Latin. Reviewing, one is always holding back, trying not to displease too much, serving the ephemeral.
I revert to this business of the plethora of books — in Aldous Huxley’s novel Point Counter Point it’s referred to as “a bloody flux, like what the poor woman in the Bible had”. There are so many, and one wonders why. One reason, of course is the need to keep the book technicians occupied. I write fairly regularly for a highly prestigious Italian newspaper called Il Corriere della Sera, published by Mondadori. Visiting Mondadori’s printing works, I saw a new edition of Suetonius and a new Mickey Mouse compendium – Topolino in Italy – being printed. They were on the same rolling sheet; presumably later they would be surgically split at the spine. The total indifference of the machine was what appalled. Let anything be printed so long as printing goes on.
The true horror that’s implicit in the plethora is the disposability of books, like so much garbage. Books have to appear, but they also have to be destroyed to make room for more books. Keeping a book in print is damnably difficult. We used to have the naive conviction that if a book had value it would keep itself alive, would defy the burners and shredders and recyclers and, being the precious life blood of a master spirit, continue to circulate and nourish the body of civilisation. But this is not so. Lord Archer’s books are alive, while his superiors breathe briefly, then gasp, then perish.
One of the tasks of the literate is less to conserve great books, or worthy books, than to resuscitate them. I remember some years ago, appearing on a highly elitist television programme in which passages from books were skilfully elocuted by actors and then named and allocated by a team of litterateurs. When a comic passage was read out and I did not know it, I said, for want of something better to say, “Oh, that’s from the novel Augustus Carp Esq.” Immediately the proceedings were held up while Robert Robinson and Sir Kingsley Amis cried simultaneously: “What, do you know that book?” There had been a silent and secret underground of admirers. This had the effect of getting the book briefly back into print. Must we do this for AEW Ellis’s The Rack – a novel, on its appearance, hailed as superior to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (it was about a tuberculosis sanatorium). It appeared in 1961, but not even its publishers remember it. How about the novels of Rex Warner, William Sansom, HG Wells, for that matter, which some of us urge on to a new public through laudatory prefaces? They breathe again briefly, then sink back into oblivion.
Meanwhile the flux continues — biographies, accounts of life in Provence, books of herstory as opposed to history, thigh and hip books, manuals of Kurdish cookery, brief histories of time. The literary editor, faced with the daily avalanche, has to choose, and often he chooses wrong. And ultimately it doesn’t matter. What we read today tomorrow we burn. At the beginning of the second world war, Louis MacNeice wrote:
Die the thinkers, die the Jews
All the hungry, homeless queues,
Give us this day our daily news.
Or, if you like, Sunday news. The procession of what, by definition, is forgettable goes on, duly forgotten. Books, being part of the news, join the polluted stream that flows into oblivion.
Yet I ought to end on a less cynical note. Nothing in my life, except the love of a good woman, has been more important than books. The writer is impelled by his desire to achieve the honour of being numbered among the master spirits who have produced them. Pride and humility conjoin in the writer’s life. The literary editor and his reviewers are ancillary agents of the conviction that nothing is as important as the box of organised knowledge which is acronymised into B.O.O.K. It may be a mad conviction, but it’s the madness that sustained our civilisation in the past and, despite the new technologies and the homogenisation of values, is unlikely to be superseded by new modes of communication between souls, if souls may still be said to exist. We have our uses. I rest my case.