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The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918

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DJ Taylor.  The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918

 

Although the title of DJ Taylor’s monumental study of writing and publishing is misleading  (prose overwhelms other forms, but Auden, Eliot and Spender are pre-eminently poets) this is a thoroughly entertaining and informative account.  Until Taylor reaches the contemporary publishing scene, he shows a magisterial grasp of trends in attitude towards literature, his writing peppered with interesting asides, such as that at some point in their careers James Joyce, Viginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad each submitted work to Tit Bits.  He is especially good as recovering authorial pronouncements in letters and magazines.  In Chapter One, for example, Taylor invokes not only Dickens’ Household Words, but Eliot’s Criterion, JC Squires’ London Mercury, as well as long-forgotten reviews such as the Dome, the Pageant, the Chameleon and the Rose Leaf.  We move from the passing of Victorian literature, where Vanity Fair (1847-8)  sold only a modest 10,000 copies in its author’s lifetime, through the Georgian era where Frank Swinnerton’s novels ‘sold 20,000 copies a year in the US,’ while Eliot, Joyce and Woolf appealed to only a tiny minority.

 

Taylor gives ample scope to analyses of authorial balance sheets, three of his chapters being entitled ‘Making a Living I 1918-1939,’ ‘Making a Living II 1939-1970,’  and Making a Living III 1970- .  We follow the Paperback Revolution, and not too exhaustively, The Digital Revolution (to date over a million available titles on Amazon Kindle alone).  He quotes Francis King’s forecast, issued 38 years ago:  ‘Soon the novelist will find, as the poet has found already, that the majority of people even of ‘educated’ people have become totally uninterested in whatever freakish thing he is trying to accomplish.’

 

The final chapter, ‘Enemies of Promise’ takes us back to the book’s title with its somewhat menacing emphasis on mass production.  Taylor invents Hugo Littlejohn, a young man who thanks to contacts soars up the literary ladder, taking an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Loamshire, and becomes a functionary in the technological machine, a necessary evil, presumably producing novels nobody reads, an ‘enemy of promise.’ 

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