A tremendously exhilarating book, John Sutherland’s history of fiction in English from John Bunyan and Aphra Behn to Patricia Cornwell, Alice Sebold and Rana Dasgupta is less a work of scholarship than it is a catalogue of pleasures.
Indeed, there’s something distinctly gossipy, almost salacious, in Sutherland’s fascination with the messy lives of authors. Sexual indiscretions, alcoholism, ill health, financial desperation and early death are virtual leitmotifs, running throughout these 800 pages of potted literary biography. For example, toward the end of his entry on Edith Wharton, he quotes a steamy passage from an unpublished sketch called “Beatrice Palmato.” Who knew that the corseted grande dame of American letters could write stuff so hot and graphic it can’t possibly be quoted in a family newspaper?
Ostensibly, Sutherland’s title — “Lives of the Novelists” — alludes to the biographical-critical masterwork of Samuel Johnson, “Lives of the Poets.” But Sutherland is less an interpretative genius than he is a literary entertainer. In some ways, his book might be better likened to the lip-smackingly scandalous “Brief Lives” of the 17th-century eccentric John Aubrey or even to the “Curiosities of Literature” of that snapper-up of unconsidered trifles Isaac D’Israeli. This means you can read Sutherland for fun as well as for (cultural) profit. Daniel Defoe, he tells us, once failed in a scheme to harvest musk “from the anus of cats,” and Laurence Sterne’s corpse was stolen from its grave and “recognized — just before dismemberment — on a medical school dissection table at Cambridge.”
Despite his taste for the louche and eye-popping, Sutherland — the retired Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London — unquestionably possesses the proper academic bona fides. His earlier works include “The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction” (a 900-entry biographical encyclopedia that he wrote from scratch), important books about Thackeray, Walter Scott and Mrs. Humphry Ward, and several studies of bestsellers and the popular fiction market. For decades now, he has also been a fixture in Britain as a reviewer for the top literary periodicals and newspapers.
As if he were its custodian, Sutherland seems to know every room in the House of Fiction, from the dank basement where the chained monsters slaver to the formal drawing rooms of Jane Austen and Henry James. Although a critic like Harold Bloom disdains Stephen King, without, perhaps, having done more than glance at one of his books, it’s clear that Sutherland has read nearly all King’s novels and grasped his storytelling genius: “What sets King apart from other super-selling authors is his constant straining against the limitations of genre.”
I really can’t underscore enough the range and sprightliness of “Lives of the Novelists.” Sutherland discusses the cowboy novelists Owen Wister, Zane Grey, Max Brand and Louis L’Amour; writes shrewdly about the mystery-thriller specialists Edgar Wallace, Eric Ambler, Margery Allingham, Leslie Charteris (creator of “The Saint” and a founder of Mensa), Mickey Spillane, Ian Fleming, Dick Francis and Trevanian; and emphasizes the sociological influence of such classic children’s authors as L. Frank Baum, Kenneth Grahame, Enid Bagnold, Richmal Crompton and Captain W.E. Johns (creator of Biggles). Although he covers “good” bestsellers such as Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” and Marilyn French’s “The Women’s Room,” he doesn’t neglect influential “bad” ones, such as Harold Robbins’s “The Carpetbaggers,” Jacqueline Susann’s “Valley of the Dolls” and, even, William L. Pierce’s rancid “The Turner Diaries.” There’s something, in short, for every taste and, implicitly, an invitation to try some new or exotic items from fiction’s smorgasbord.
In this regard, Sutherland is particularly useful in pointing out neglected books and writers: “Two things are routinely said of [Robert] Bage by those (few) who ever get around to reading him: one is that more people should read him and the other that ‘Hermsprong’ qualifies as the most bizarre title in English literature.” Lewis Wingfield’s “The Curse of Koshiu,” subtitled “A Chronicle of Old Japan,” is “quite as good as [Ian] Fleming’s ‘You Only Live Twice,’ or James Clavell’s “Shogun.’ ” Benjamin Disraeli’s “Sybil” contains “the most graphic depictions of working-class wretchedness to be found in Victorian fiction,” and George Eliot’s short story “Janet’s Repentance” is “the first study of female alcoholism in literature.” Not least, we are reminded that Amanda Ros, the author of “Irene Iddesleigh,” is a leading candidate for “the world’s worst novelist.”
While Sutherland can be tantalizing — as in his description of a cunningly structured mystery, “Tony and Susan,” by Austin M. Wright — he sometimes says too much, regularly giving away a book’s denouement. This is particularly distressing because Sutherland emphasizes plot-driven fiction: The Jim Thompson entry, for example, reveals — or wrecks — several key scenes in “The Killer Inside Me.” At the same time, Sutherland can brilliantly sum up an author’s overall esthetic: Anthony Burgess’s writing, is “marked by a Joycean verbal exuberance, tempered by cosmic melancholy.”
At least some of “Lives of the Novelists” is recycled material from reviews, essays and other journalism. No shame in that. But this does lead to occasional idiosyncrasy. The essay on Thomas Hardy traces the novelist’s obsession with hanging, that on William Faulkner focuses almost entirely on “Soldier’s Pay,” and the Philip Roth entry dwells inordinately on “The Facts.” Sutherland’s so-called “Must Read Text” for Graham Greene is “The End of the Affair,” which seems an odd choice, and for John Cheever he picks, even more unexpectedly, “Falconer.” After noting that Kingsley Amis pronounced “The Space Merchants,” by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, “the best SF novel ever written,” Sutherland adds, “It has my vote as well.” This is crazy. “The Space Merchants” is entertaining and influential but very much a period piece. There are a score of better science-fiction novels.
But, then, arguing with Sutherland can be part of the fun. Why Michael Avallone rather than Rex Stout? Is Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano” a greater work than Ralph Ellison’s excluded “Invisible Man”? Should Brian Aldiss be replaced by Philip K. Dick or Ursula K. Le Guin? On the whole, Sutherland seems to shy away from fantasy, and you will look in vain for entries on Thomas Love Peacock, Ronald Firbank, Mervyn Peake, J.R.R. Tolkien, Angela Carter or John Crowley. He also strikes me as rather lukewarm about Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison and, more surprisingly, Anthony Powell. By contrast, Sutherland reveres Elmore Leonard, regards Julian Barnes’s “Flaubert’s Parrot” as “a high point in twentieth-century literature,” declares David Lodge “the greatest comic novelist of our time,” and rightly views J.G. Ballard as, quite simply, “one of the very greatest writers of his time.”
Early in his book, Sutherland suggests, almost casually, that “the air of reality (solidity of specification) seems to be the supreme virtue of a novel.” That phrase “solidity of specification” aptly describes the nuggety, factual approach in these essays; there’s nothing gaseous about Sutherland’s writing. By its heft, “Lives of the Novelists” might look like an academic tome, but it reads like one of those unputdownable blockbusters you take to the beach.
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Post at wapo.st/reading-room.
By John Sutherland
818 pp. $39.95