Critics at work

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
WRITERS AT WORK SERIES. Thomas Hardy By Peter Widdowson.

Angus Wilson By Peter Conradi. Virginia Woolf By Laura Marcus. George Eliot By Josephine McDonagh. Caryl Churchill By Elaine Aston. Tony Harrison By Joe Kelleher. J R R Tolkien By Charles Moseley. D H Lawrence By Linda Ruth Williams. James Joyce By Steven Connor. Northcote HouseBritish Council Pounds 7.99 - 8.99 each.

This is an attractive series of commentaries on literary figures, relaunched in 1994, and gathering steam (Ishiguro, Plath, Soyinka, Bond and Paul Scott are planned for imminent publication, among many others).

This selection of nine communicates the aims of the editors pretty well - a sensible balance of biography, context and literary criticism, all refreshingly opinionated, sometimes almost apologetically so.

But what is the intended audience? For the most part, not sixth-form students, and perhaps not even undergraduates. It is more probably the teachers who will want to buy them, because, with two particularly honourable exceptions in this clutch, the style will sometimes defeat what we might call the common reader.

There is something approaching a house style - a genuine attempt to be friendly and matey, marred by lapses into scholarly guff. It's almost as if the writers cannot help themselves. No matter how invigorating their approach, they cannot resist lobbing in polysyllabic words that make an ordinary eye wander off into the deep space of speedreading.

Thus, we have recoverable authorial intention, parataxis, eucatastrophe, gestural encoding, exteriority, mimetic autonomism, genderisation, transcendental signifier, scopophilic, necessarily essentialist premiss (sic), and so on.

I am exaggerating the vocabulary problem. The density of the sentences is what slows you down. They wouldn't fare well, you feel, in those "fog indexes" built into word-processing packages.

However, if you persist, the depth and breadth of argument and knowledge are exciting and illuminating. Aston, for instance, knows Churchill's work in amazing detail; Moseley has a friendly bash at putting Tolkien into proper context; Connor unpicks Finnegans Wake with panache. Conradi's book on Wilson is a clean read, but he skimps the biographical material that all the others include so skilfully.

By coincidence, and ready to recommend Penguin Critical Studies instead, which I suppose I should admit I would still do, I came to McDonagh and Marcus last, and their respective books on George Eliot and Woolf. These are exemplary introductions to their subjects, and prove that it is not necessary to baffle your reader. What Marcus in particular achieves is a study that not only clarifies and analyses Woolf in a non-dogmatic way, but which also sends you off to the bookshelves, wondering if you've really read the books, and insisting that you make sure you set about them again.

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