Lives of the Novelists. By John Sutherland (Profile Books)

by John Boland

Irish Independent, December 3, 2011

Was Amanda Ros the world’s worst novelist? That was the title recently bestowed on the Co Down-born author of ‘Irene Iddesleigh’, ‘Delina Delaney’ and other late-Victorian potboilers – books so derided for their ludicrous situations and awful prose that in the 1940s JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and other Oxford dons ran competitions to see who could recite from them without bursting out laughing.

I learnt this from the book under review in which John Sutherland, a noted academic and literary critic, devotes separate essays (mostly between two and four pages) to 294 writers of fiction in the English language, ranging in time from John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe to Ian McEwan and Martin Amis.

One’s immediate reaction is: why 294 and not a pleasingly rounded 300? He doesn’t say, but then that’s not the only eccentric thing about this often infuriating book in which trenchant opinions and intriguing anecdotes don’t always win out over inaccuracies, inconsistencies and perverse preferences.

For instance, Edna O’Brien is the only Irish novelist of the last sixty years who’s deemed worthy of an entry, though space is given to scores of mediocre English and American writers of the same or more recent vintage. Indeed, it’s hard not to question a critical sensibility that finds room for Alistair Maclean, Wilbur Smith, Jeffrey Archer, Michael Crichton and Patricia Cornwell while ignoring Flann O’Brien, Brian Moore, William Trevor, John McGahern and John Banville.

In fact, Sutherland is especially generous towards writers who, in the face of critical scorn, have churned out bestsellers – an indulgence that may have something to do with the fact that he’s also been working on an Oxford companion to popular literature. Whatever the reason, some of the most absorbing essays here are about Edgar Wallace, WE Johns, Dennis Wheatley, Catherine Cookson, Leslie Charteris, John Creasey and various other crowd-pleasers whose bank balances inured them against critical barbs (It’s curious, though, that he omits such bestselling writers of their day as Neville Shute and AJ Cronin).

Sutherland himself can be pretty lowbrow, too, especially in his fondness for sexual tittletattle. We’re told that Elizabeth Bowen, though married, remained a virgin until she embarked on the first of many affairs at the age of thirty-five but that “once she got the hang of it she was a harsh mistress.” Harold Robbins, for his part, had an “insatiable appetite” for women, though a late-life fall in the shower meant that “screwing was off the menu in his last years.”As for Edna O’Brien, she has churlishly “kept hidden details of the many love affairs London literary gossip credits her with.”

This is all quite good fun, though the literary evaluations tend to be more prosaic (Beckett’s late work saw him “gnawing the same old bones into even more boniness”) while Sutherland’s handling of chronology can be very careless – writing of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he comments that the author “would be a middle-aged man before it was published.” Joyce, in fact, was only thirty-four. Sutherland’s cavalier attitude to detail extends to more general matters – most notably the fact that, despite the book’s title, he includes writers who are only known for their short stories: O Henry, Saki, Katherine Mansfield and Alice Munro all get individual essays.

But it’s hard to get too cross with someone who gives due appreciation to such diverse (and undervalued) favourites of this reviewer as Arnold Bennett, Edith Wharton, Patrick Hamilton, JB Priestley, Charles Willeford and Elmore Leonard. He should have found room, though, for both John Le Carre and Charles McCarry.

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