Meet the author then read on
It is necessary to clarify the terminology. These new study guides are closest in spirit and achievement to the estimable Writers and their Work series, published by Northcote House.
They target AAS-level students, undergraduates, literature-lovers everywhere. Each has a similar format: chronology; biography; major works; overview; bibliography. There are no directed activities; be guided as you wish. The longest (103 pages, Conrad) is described as a "selective essay". Tennyson is a "brief survey". In the shortest (Eliot, 48 pages) C H Sisson urges readers "to lose themselves in the variety of the work and not be encouraged, or put off, by anybody else's reading of it". He is only partially right.
Without encouragement (tutor, critic, syllabus?) readers might never know what they are missing. If criticism deflates, it also celebrates and affirms. Enthusiastic assertions - The Secret Agent as "artistic perfection", Humphry Clinker as "among the finest of all English novels" - might encourage us to taste them. Hopeful naivety? Perhaps, but readers are unlikely "to lose themselves" in books mired in Tennyson's "filthy sloughs" of oblivion. Enoch Arden, for example, sold 17,000 copies on publication day alone. Who reads it now? Roderick Random surged to 8,500. Have you read it? No, nor have I. Mind you, Leavis excluded Smollett from his "great tradition" of English fiction, so we're probably not alone.
However, while each guide elucidates and celebrates its subject's unique achievement, it avoids the negative effects of enshrinement. The approach is Seymour-Smith's: "We must not be sentimental, it is his own best supplies the standard by which not to be." Thus, he affirms that little Conrad wrote "lacks some touch of genius", but acknowledges a "major flaw" in Heart of Darkness. Even Nostromo has "rhetorical bad habits" and "dregs of style". Sisson is forthright about Eliot's poetic genius, but also his decline. The dramatic verse of Murder in the Cathedral is "lifeless", East Coker begins with a "tired rhythm" and "grotesquely unoriginal words". Giddings is least critical ("brilliant" occurs six times in 22 pages) challenging Smollett's scant regard. Yet he concedes The Regicide is "worthless", Sir Launcelot Greaves "marred".
Equally, there is no sentimentality where biography influences text: hypochondria, egocentricity, marriage, racism, sex, drugs - but no rock n'roll. Often we know: the autobiographical presence in Smollett's description of Bath. Elsewhere, we may suspect. The virulent bluster of Locksley Hall and Tennyson's courtship failure. The complex story of Conrad and Ford, both literary and psychological. Mention in Eliot of a cabman "who read George Meredith". I enjoyed the trivia, as Tennyson did the tobacco and booze (he lived to 87). Did you know there's a Rue Smollett in Nice?
Scholarship surfaces in various guises. Textual criticism - Tennyson's obsessive care to separate and modulate sibilances; Eliot's "regurgitating mind". In the throwaway lines ("writers disturb things - and people") or the fuller exploration of irony; in the cross-references (Eliot on Tennyson) and the parallels (prentice work).
In feuds corner, the spats with theory-driven critics bring breadth, balance, and waspish humour. Stings against professorial ownership of literature and "deconstructive moments" are naughty but nice (in the original sense). Agreement can prove equally striking. On individual books: Nostromo as "the greatest novel of the twentieth century" (Walter Allen). Or general questions (literature and the provincialism of time).
The style of these guides has a pressure of meaning behind it. Students should learn from that, but not the printing slips. If art is about selection, perception and taste, then this is it.