It may be art but . . .
I am not a great reader. It stems from a very low boredom threshold. If my attention is not captured after a few pages, a chapter at most, the book is unlikely to be finished. This trait (the second t is pronounced in English) first came to light at school where I was required to take on Great Expectations, which some claim is the best of Dickens’s novels. Since I was under orders and it was a set text I struggled on for all of 125 pages before I dug in my heels and asked for a different task. To his eternal credit the head of English, who later appeared in advertisements for the teaching profession under the slogan ‘the last man to answer all Jeremy Paxman’s questions’, allowed me to work on a biography of Sir Isaac Newton instead. Newton is far more interesting than Dickens.
Despite this the walls of our house, those not lined with M’s pictures of boats, are lined with books. Many I have had for forty years or more and have read more than once. They are a varied collection because I read for fun, entertainment and information. The literary editor of the Times, which last week published a list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945, and his team seem to read for erudition, social awareness, ethnic solidarity and as participation in an art form. Many readers will have measured their own erudition by going through the list to see how many were familiar to them. I did too and failed, scoring as follows: heard of (meaning I could as a minimum identify the person as a writer), 25; read some of (at least a few chapters and not counting S Rushdie, who comfortably failed the first page test), about 7 or 8; finished a book by, 6. As some consolation these, Roald Dahl (16), Ian Fleming (14), Kingsley Amis (9), George Orwell (2), C S Lewis (11) and Anthony Powell (20) were all in the top end of the list and I bet the last one surprised you. The only one I felt I should have read and have not was John le Carre.
My own list would be based on different criteria from those of the Times, which chose style, influence, longevity and sales, though I felt some had a fair way to go yet to qualify under longevity, several quoted novels having been published only in this century. I would choose a combination of quality of writing (different, I suspect, from what the Times meant by style) and entertainment value. Clearly Orwell got his second place for influence and longevity for his style is hardly racy. He earns his place in my view for his essays on ‘Politics and the English language’ and ‘The prevention of literature’ more than 1984 or Animal Farm. In the first essay he lays out his six rules for clear, unpretentious writing, ignored by or unknown to some of the fifty, who get praised for being genre-crossing or infused with transforming power, displaying consistent integrity and so on. Spare us. If you see the novel as an art form you suffer the same delusion as the French cinema industry.
Published authors displaying both quality of writing and entertainment value are fewer than the number of published, accepted and often praised authors. My list would contain several writers who would receive no consideration from the literary editor’s team because they trade in some lowly, despised genre. We can start, because he is fresh in my mind, with George Macdonald Fraser who died a few days ago with the chronicles of the entertainingly despicable Flashman sadly unfinished. Fraser’s narrative touch was sometimes reminiscent of P G Wodehouse, than which there is no higher praise. To combine this with serious military history was brilliant. To Fraser, without implying an order of merit, I would add: Leslie Thomas, for being able to bring true life pathos to a good bawdy tale; Tom Sharpe, for fiendishly wicked angles on the targets of his satire; Roger Woddis, for showing that poetry can still rhyme and scan; Frederick Forsyth (first three books only), Len Deighton, and Bernard Levin, if only for The Pendulum Years (well they said writers, not novelists). My shelves also house William Cooper, Nigel Balchin, E F Benson ( I’ve never read any but M loves them, keeping me awake at night with her cackling), John Wyndham, David Lodge, Nicholas Monsarrat (no, not The Cruel Sea, The Nylon Pirates) and Adrian Mole. Even Nevil Shute, whom the Thunderer would despise utterly but who could tell a good tale better than most and was one of few who even mentioned real flying, let alone understood it. Not an airport novel or bonkbuster in the list - is the Times saying I am not well read?
Browsing, I came across the appropriate summing up quite by accident in the words of the Master – of the entire twentieth century and since, never mind the puny post-1945 lot: ‘. . . she wrote this novel and it was well received by the intelligentsia, who notoriously enjoy the most frightful bilge’. I couldn’t have put it better myself.