Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Lives of the Novelists, by John Sutherland

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

John Sutherland’s Lives of the Novelists examines in short three page biographies the lives of 294 writers, from over four centuries. Everyone from Jane Austen to Jacqueline Susann is tackled with wit and energy. What comes across most vividly in these fascinating and often gossipy literary sketches is what compels novelists to write in the first place, whether it be the highbrow Henry James or the popular Stephen King. Sutherland’s broad range and snappy style ensures there’s never a dull moment in its 800 pages.

John Sutherland starts his ‘history of fiction’ with John Bunyan (1628-1688) and finishes with Rana Dasgupta, born in 1971. Inbetween he gives 294 brief biographies of novelists he feels worthy of inclusion in this most eclectic book. Each biography is about three pages in length, with some entries making it to five. (Thomas Hardy’s extended treatment deals, curiously enough, with the literary representations of public executions.)

There are several biographies that have postscripts, appended lives of novelists who are in some way related to the main subject. For example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s entry has a postscript devoted to S. Weir Mitchell, the physician who invented the ‘rest cure’ that almost drove Gilman mad (this treatment would form the basis of her most famous story ‘The Yellow Wall-paper’). Sutherland sure has a lively sense of irony.

Practically all the novelists that are examined wrote their major works in English, so you won’t find any Gogol or Flaubert or Cervantes in this history. The only novel I can recall that Sutherland discusses that wasn’t written in English is Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, although Koestler went on to write novels in English. Lives of the Novelists is pretty much exclusively English speaking authors, with the odd exception.

The big surprise is who’s left in and who’s left out. This is no tome that presumes to set in stone a canon of great Western literature, like Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon (Sutherland makes a light jibe at the famous professor, quipping that he is to literature what Einstein was to physics).

Many will be surprised by some of the choices, even alarmed. One white supremacist novelist is even included. Overall, Lives of the Novelists swings between canonical writers, like Jane Austen and Henry James, and pulp and science fiction writers. What’s the point of this wild and sometimes outrageous selection? In the brief, one page preface, Sutherland states ‘What I’ve written has been sustained by the belief that literary life and work are inseparable and mutually illuminating.’ Sometimes, however, contrary to the book’s stated intention, you wonder how these novelists with such sordid lives wrote such great fiction. A quote from Plutarch at the book’s beginning gives a closer flavour of the text: “It does not follow that because a particular work of art succeeds in charming us, its creator also deserves our admiration”

What strikes most is not necessarily the inseparability of literary life and work, but rather what compels people to write novels and creative autobiographies. (Several of the latter category are rather cheekily reclassified by Sutherland as fiction, notably Lillian Helman’s autobiography which was found to be full of fabrications.) In most cases, the urge to write seems almost to be a form of therapy or catharsis. 

Sutherland’s book is wonderfully democratic. By casting his net wide and reviewing authors whom he thinks wrote execrable prose (Marilyn French, for example), he shows that fiction writing should be open to all. Even bad novels have their interest.

This is a rollicking good read that can be nibbled at, picking authors out here and there, or read in a straight line from Bunyan to Dasgupta. For the most part I rode a straight line, but every now and again I greedily raced ahead to favourites like Kurt Vonnegut, John Cheever and Jacqueline Susann. Sutherland writes in a swift, fast moving prose, bringing his broad range to inform without being dry or academic. Just the opposite in fact. Sutherland has a real relish for gossipy details and a nose for salacious scandal. His short biographies are littered with lurid details about sex, alcoholism and all manner of human depravity. Sutherland even shows great disappointment in not being able to find any really good dirt on the squeaky clean Jane Austen, and suspects a cover up (a lot of her correspondence was destroyed.) Lives of the Novelists may seem to have a heavy, serious minded aura, but rest assured, there’s never a dull moment in its racy pages.

Click here to hear Phillip Adams interview author John Sutherland about Lives of the Novelists.

Lives of the Novelists
, by John Sutherland. Published by Allen and Unwin. ISBN: 9781846681578   RRP: $59.99