[ilds] "doubtless each reader could supply a list of his own"

slighcl slighcl at wfu.edu
Thu Jan 17 11:28:00 PST 2008

On 1/17/2008 10:22 AM, Wilson, Fraser wrote:
> *The 50 greatest British writers since 1945*
> *"What better way to start the year than with an argument? The Times 
> has decided to present you with a ranking of whom they consider the 
> best postwar British writers, and are awaiting your 
> responses"..........................*
> http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article3127837.ece 
> Durrell absent. Surprised ? Was nice to see Rosemary Sutcliffe creep 
> in at 49 though.
Thanks for forwarding the list--whatever its merits--Fraser.

No, I am not surprised.  Although I am not uninterested in the Times 
Online listing, the title of the list--"50 greatest British /Writers 
/since 1945"--signals the categorical sloppiness to follow.  Then you 
must consider that the editors of the Books section needed to make up a 
list chock full of names easily recognized and quickly consumed by their 
readers.  If you are a historian wanting to know something about the 
press, British popular culture, and the publishing economy in the 
specific moment of 2008, the list could perhaps tell you much.  
Otherwise, the list seems rather /cliché'd/, unsurprising, uninspiring, 
and prescient of the disbelieving laughter to follow when some 
researcher stumbles across it circa 2078.  Something similar would be 
true of lists drawn up by University literature departments, I think.

And my point is not at all about what used to be called "high culture" 
and "low culture."  In the bygone days when Playboy shared and promoted 
its readers' aspirations to "culture," Durrell showed that he could 
traffic just as easily in literary pulp as in Literature Prime.  Instead 
of paying attention to arbitrary lists of the "greatest," as time goes 
by, the only sort of listing that I value comes from those friends and 
fellow readers (past and present) whom I admire for very particular 
reasons.  Reading lists sent to me from friends or old catalogs of the 
personal libraries of writers whom I admire allow me to imagine a 
bio-bibliographical story.  When suggested by a new friend, or when 
recalled in a conversation with an old friend, or when recorded by a 
Past Hand (say, Lamb, Swinburne, Pater, Hardy, Gissing, Beerbohm), then 
a list seems to become the imprint of how a life was lived and thoughts 
were thought.  A pleasant illusion, perhaps, but I still find it more 
warming than the chilly impersonality of "most popular" or "most 
significant" lists.  (Ah, warmth.  It is quite cold and icy here in 
North Carolina.)

Perhaps Jamie will talk a bit about Durrell's reading, something that I 
know the Durrell School to be reconstructing.  Also Durrell draws up a 
curious and insightfully contrarian reading of canonical reading in his 
"Minor Mythologies" essay.  In the early 1950s he writes how he finds
>         The myth-making faculty is busy at many different levels; a
>         critic interested in the creative process may find more food
>         for thought in Stephen Dedalus than in Jeeves.  Yet he should
>         be prepared to acknowledge them both as part of the broad
>         flood of a nation's literature flowing out towards the future,
>         to the sea.  Many readers might think it a waste of time--but
>         how delightful a book on the minor mythology of the age could
>         be made if one could persuade a serious critic to consider its
>         figures . . . Holmes, Jeeves, Dr. Fu Manchu, Captain Blood,
>         Bulldog Drummond, Bones, Captain Nemo, Frankenstein, Dracula .
>         . . but doubtless each reader could supply a list of his own.


Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
Wake Forest University
slighcl at wfu.edu

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