The Prose Factory by D.J. Taylor

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

prose factoryThis ambitious book aims to provide a history of what it calls ‘literary life’ in the 20th century, encompassing an examination of writers, reviewers, the editors and owners of literary magazines, ‘ordinary’ readers and the financial detail of literary (writers’ and reviewers’) livelihoods. It succeeds in its aim, taking an energetic run through the century, whipping through figures familiar and less so and pausing to take stock of themes along the way.

Taylor starts with definitions of the two central questions in the book: what is literary culture (the environment in which books are written, distributed, reviewed, received and put in front of the public) and what is taste (the solid block of opinion on such books, either passive when being bought or active when being reviewed and discussed by the critics). These questions then inform the book as a whole, which takes a generally chronological view of the subject, with some chapters taking a longer view.

The book moves from the coteries and clubs of the 1920s through the essayists of the 1930s, many rows in many decades, more coteries and clubs, moves leftwards and rightwards politically in the 1940s and 1980s, the changing classes of successful authors and movements, divisions between metropolitan and regional or university-based critics, the rise of reading in the Second World War, the swings in fortune of the 1950s, the emergence of literature festivals and prizes, State interventions in the literary world, the rise of the media don and the coming of post-colonial literature. The role of literary criticism, which only seemed to start being written about in the 1920s, with more scientific criticism of poetry taking its time, and – much later – literary theory’s rise and fall, but whichcan always  be seen as an elite imposing views onto the masses, although it’s not entirely clear whether the masses take that on board or whether the critics are talking to themselves.

The advantage of the author’s background writing book reviews for various publications for decades, plus novels and historical non-fiction, is that he is able to understand the business from the inside out, and to take a historical overview of things, which leads to the most interesting and profound insights in the book. For example, he’s very good at reminding us of the gulf between ‘critical’ and ‘public’ taste and reading, especially the fact that public taste tends to lag behind new innovations in literature by many decades (true enough for those of us happily reading Galsworthy and Bennett almost a century after the modernists started to discredit them but also interesting when you consider the rise and fall of Eliot, Bloomsbury, etc. ). He also takes the long view on the ups and downs of the literary world, which makes for interesting and reassuring reading, particularly at the end, where he compares the Victorian method of publishing in instalments and being sensitive to readers’ concerns to modern collaborative ways of working.

Using historical analysis, Taylor makes excellent comparisons between literary output after the First World War (burgeoning, blooming; an outpouring) and the Second World War (pretty much stalled). He points out that the perceived collapse in serious newspapers’ book pages and heavyweight literary reviewing might actually only be a return to the baseline from the huge increase in such things in the 1980s and 90s as opposed to the 70s, when pickings were very thin indeed. If there’s a central premise or narrative arc in the book, it seems to be this: things come and go, there are cycles, sometimes there are lots of literary magazines, sometimes very few, sometimes academia is in the ascent, sometimes journalism. People have always worried that cinema, radio, television, now the Internet will cut down on the number of readers and amount of reading going on. However, there is definitely a move away from the days when a single reviewer could make or break a book or author’s reputation – I don’t think even the super-bloggers can do that. I would have liked something about the rise of new magazines such as Slightly Foxed or even, dare I say it, Shiny New Books, which I feel are bringing back the literary and interesting although maybe giving more room to re-issues and older favourites than might have happened during the relentless march of progress and innovation that the book in hand covers.

Two interesting strands emerge in the book: the cult of the star reviewer or magazine editor, arbiter of critical and to an extent public taste; and the intertwined fates of authors and their incomes. When there are bloated book pages, powerful reviewers and a big literary industry, as in the 1980s and 1990s, interest goes up and so do the advances given to authors. When things split and braid, dividing or even disappearing underground, authors and reviewers both start to feel the pull of poverty and their incomes fade.

I was a little confused by the referencing, which doesn’t leave a mark in the main text, but provides slabs of bibliography, a few for each chapter, as endnotes. This can sometimes be a little frustrating, but may have its eye on the reader who has a mobile device beside them in which to check references. And the endnotes are thorough and cover what they need to cover. The book is exhaustive and covers a lot of ground, which means that sometimes people, movements and literary rows are mentioned but not explained – so it’s good to either know a bit about the period and subject to begin with or to be prepared to use the book as a launch pad from which to explore further in other sources. It would suit a reader interested in readership, authorship, literary magazines or the financial side of writing and is a great source which I’m sure readers will return to once read in full.

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Liz Dexter is not obsessed with footnotes and referencing, honest! She is an inveterate reader, an editor and transcriber and a potential marathon runner. She’s trying to finish her research on Iris Murdoch and the ‘ordinary reader’, so of course she read this book rather than working on her research. Her book review blog is at Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working from Home http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

D. J. Taylor, The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918 (Chatto & Windus, 2016). 978-0701188135, 501 pp., hardback.

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2 Comments

  1. Simon

    Great review Liz – I’m all the more glad that I bought it the other day! It sounds like he’s managed to pack a huge amount in.

    Oh, and I can be funny about endnotes and things too…

  2. Questing Vole

    Yes, it’s true to say that the author packs a lot in. The larger question is where he gets it all from. I was confused, to say the least, by the referencing. D.J. Taylor lifts large chunks of information from a non-fiction book of which I am the author. I know that he is familiar with my work because he reviewed my book in the Independent. Although Taylor’s text draws substantially on my own published work, in ways which are immediately obvious to me, he makes no reference to my book in his endnotes or bibliography, thereby giving the impression that the material lifted from my text represents his original discoveries.

    If Taylor had submitted this book for examination as a PhD thesis, it would have been failed on the grounds of plagiarism.

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