Samuel Taylor Coleridge was said to have been the last man who had read everything. That couldn’t have been true two hundred years ago, and it’s even more unlikely now, given the proliferation of books and how much time we all spend consuming internet pap.
In The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: Aspects of English Literary Life Since 1800 (1969), the British critic John Gross argued that the heyday of men of letters was long gone.
It was Gross (1935–2011)—himself a worthy candidate for the last Englishman of Letters—who first commissioned a Scotsman of Letters, James Campbell (a.k.a. J. C.), to write for the Times Literary Supplement, Britain’s leading literary periodical, edited by Gross from 1974 to 1981.
A later editor, Ferdinand Mount—my father (I must confess, as a literary “nepo baby,” that I also worked at the TLS for my dad and I know Campbell)—got J. C. to write the NB column in the TLS. Campbell proceeded to file the column once a week from 1997 to 2020.
NB is the TLS’s amusing diary. It has no specific brief, but, in his wide range, Campbell covered all aspects of the literary world.
Most journalism dates, but NB doesn’t. It makes for an intriguing commentary on the gathering pace of political correctness in the world of books.
Thirty years ago, Campbell’s predecessor in the NB slot, David Sexton, noted how “Alison Prince was asked to change the opening phrase of her book, A Job for Merv: ‘Things were looking black’ was objected to in favour of ‘Things were looking bad.’”
In his twenty-three years in the slot, Campbell campaigned against “the increasing warnings of ‘You can’t say that,’ which began the work of deadening literary production in the second decade of the present [twenty-first] century.”
He is brave in his campaign against tokenism.
He is brave in his campaign against tokenism, in particular the fencing off of parts of the book world to particular groups. It leads to a sort of apartheid, he says. If this fencing off is accepted, “then the argument is settled: we do live in a society in which people—in this case, writers—can be separated according to the color of their skin.”
This is baleful, Campbell convincingly argues:
What failed to appeal to me was consideration of black writers as a group apart from the community at large, with supposedly innate disadvantages and special needs that required help. Wasn’t that approach what they (we) were trying to overcome?
All that matters is talent. Incidentally, Campbell was a friend of James Baldwin and has often written about him. Baldwin’s excellence doesn’t prevail just in some fenced-off category; it applies, as excellence axiomatically applies, in the universal category.
This makes Campbell’s NB column sound a little dry and political. It wasn’t. It had a wry, ironic, playful tone to it, notably in its reference to The TLS Reviewer’s Handbook—a fantasy book, which would, if it were published, contain J. C.’s prohibitions on hated phrases and words: “interrogate” (except in legal contexts); “robust” (except in sporting contexts); and “limn” (in any context).
One of J. C.’s bugbears is lists of good-writing tips, including Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for writing fiction: “1. Never open a book with weather. 2. Avoid prologues.” J. C. adds, “We can add an eleventh rule: on coming across lists like this, ignore them.”
Although The TLS Reviewer’s Handbook was a mythical book, that didn’t stop some readers trying to buy it, including one Martin Scorsese. Campbell also reveals that J. D. Salinger was a TLS subscriber.
It’s hard not to agree with Campbell’s opinions, not least in his dogged war against the most idiotic extremes of academese. Although Campbell is Scottish and lives in London, he keeps a keen eye on regrettable developments in the American academy. Here he is in 2003, quoting from the deathless prose of Frederick Luis Aldama, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Colorado:
Salman Rushdie’s magicorealism gives texture to a culturally and racially complex and comprehensive fourthspace . . .
And so an, ad infinitum—et ad nauseam. The Indigestible Prose Factory of American and British Academe is bottomlessly productive.
I sense New Criterion readers will share Campbell’s theory, too, of “The Preposterousness of Maya Angelou: An Inexhaustible Series.” She pops up regularly in Campbell’s columns. My favorite is when she is asked for her preferred forms of travel. Campbell writes, with an intentional upper-case S for She:
Air travel is no longer possible, She explained, for the simple reason that She cannot set foot in airports: “I’m very well known and people often run up and put their babies in my arms.”
Campbell’s victims range through the centuries; they aren’t just modern fools. He rightly gives Henry James a kicking for this shocker of a sentence:
Mrs. Wharton not only owes to her cultivated art of putting it the distinction enjoyed when some ideal of expression has the whole of the case, the case once made its concern, in charge, but might further act for us, were we to follow up her exhibition, as lighting not a little that question of “tone,” the author’s own intrinsic, as to which we have just seen Mr. Conrad’s late production rather tend to darken counsel.
My God! Surely James had been drinking heavily—or had some other excuse for such a crime against intelligible English?
Campbell’s admirable campaign against literary show-offs is spiced with delicious, wicked rudeness. When the novelist Kate Moses presumes to give the ingredients for Tomato Soup Cake à la Sylvia Plath, Campbell adds, “Set the oven at gas mark 5 (190 C). Don’t forget to light it.”
The book isn’t all objections to idiocy, much as idiocy must be objected to. As a book addict, Campbell loves the quirks of his favorite works. One of his quests is for metafictional references, when a character in a novel is reading or writing a novel of the same name as that in which he features.
It happens in Graham Greene’s screenplay for The Third Man, later published as a novel. Popescu appears at Holly Martins’s talk at the British Council before he sends two thugs to try to kill him:
Popescu: Is Mr Martins engaged on a new book?
Martins: Yes, it is called The Third Man.
Popescu: A novel, Mr Martins.
Martins: It’s a murder story.
These funny observations pepper NB by J. C. They’re catnip to literary types and word addicts, who will like reading about pangrams, grammatical sentences that contain every letter of the alphabet, such as “Quick zephyrs blow, vexing daft Jim.”
It’s all extremely readable, particularly since it’s divided up into the bite-sized 1,400-word chunks of the original column. You can dip in and out at random and always find something to cheer you up.
Beneath the humor, there are serious points. Take Campbell’s excerpt from Ben Lewis’s Hammer & Tickle, a history of Communism told through communist jokes, like this one about people being sent to prison camps for telling jokes:
A judge is sitting in his courtroom, convulsed with laughter.
“What’s so funny?” asks the clerk.
“I just heard the funniest joke in my life.”
The clerk asks him to repeat it.
“I can’t,” says the judge. “I just sentenced someone to five years’ hard labour for doing that.”
Funny and chilling at the same time.
Along with the entertaining literary nuggets, there is an important, serious side to Campbell’s observations. In 2010, he was the first commentator to spot the hamfisted online campaign by the historian Orlando Figes to attack fellow writers, including another historian, Rachel Polonsky. In an Amazon review of a Polonsky book, Figes wrote, “This is the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published.”
The reviewer’s chosen usernames were “Historian” and “orlando-birkbeck.” Figes was a professor at Birkbeck College, University of London. And yet he denied he was the reviewer and threatened to sue anyone who said he was. His lawyer later said his wife had written the review. And then Figes accepted full responsibility and agreed to pay legal costs and damages.
The world of letters can sometimes seem a little obscure, but it still reflects. . . the best of what is thought and said.
The world of letters can sometimes seem a little obscure, but it still reflects, by its very nature, the best of what is thought and said. It is important that it should be policed—not censored, of course, but monitored for charlatans.
In his un-self-important, self-mocking way, Campbell did this, pointing out the faults in the literary world, many of which have been there for decades, often in supposedly impeccable circles. Take his column on reviewers’ log-rolling, which refers to George Orwell offering to review Cyril Connolly’s new book in return for Connolly reviewing Homage to Catalonia. As Orwell writes, with a comma splice, “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
In his final column, Campbell said good writing comes down to “elegance, eloquence and entertainment. The last means, essentially, ‘Don’t be boring.’”
J. C. never was.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 10, on page 85
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