Finn Fordham may be the kind of critic whose attentions writers dread. He is a meticulous enquirer into the often murky truth about how poems and novels come into being; the regrettably mundane concerns that shade what ought to be self-standing works of genius; the trade-offs, anxieties and occasional mania that go into writing.
None of this has undermined his faith in the power of writing to generate new shapes for the self, however. This is an elegant, ambitious book on key modernist works; while it may lack a sense of readerly engagement, it comprises an exceptionally full account of the writerly.
That preference is perhaps an unavoidable outcome of genetic criticism (the study of modern manuscripts given post-structural inflection) and Fordham is alive to the partiality of his approach. One of the central attractions of this book is its spirited defence of genetic criticism as a scholarly enterprise, and Fordham's analyses of manuscripts are models of seriousness and subtlety.
There is a sense, though, that his conceptual framework decides many of his conclusions in advance - "process" does a lot of heavy lifting here. For Fordham, the processes of writing offer too tempting an explanation for the form, the content, and pretty much everything else in great modernist works. An intriguing range of touchstones are drawn upon, from T.S. Eliot and Charles Lamb to Rene Descartes and Martin Heidegger, but the prism of post-structuralism occasionally distorts Fordham's material.
The apprehension he records in the former pairing not only arises from the chaotic tendency of writing to undo the settled self: it also marks a deeper sensitivity to what is jeopardised by giving priority to "process"; that is, the sense of edification that both writer and reader mutually partake in, a going beyond the self that, far from being hidebound, may be among the most powerful generative acts within literature's range. By searching after the familiar trope of "dissolution", and by assuming that the generation of selfhood through literature is ipso facto a kind of Nietzschean radicalism, Fordham often maintains a rather rigid idea of what "process" means.
This is not to say that the book is underdone, however. Commendably, Fordham is prepared to pursue the logic of his analyses into original areas: this being a book on selfhood, he gives a diverting self-account (some form of which would enliven any number of drier monographs).
The overall feel is of a searching, energetic study. It is the biographical details of the great modernists at work on their manuscripts that really propel the book, and Fordham manages the difficult balance of conceptual speculation and biographical narrative with real dexterity.
We see Gerard Manley Hopkins' relentless moral self-discipline and terror of "waste" feed into his extraordinary lyric compression. We see the young W.B. Yeats' pursuit of harmony in his drafting processes develop into a political preference for elitism (which seems slightly tendentious). Most convincing is Fordham's account of Joseph Conrad's fraught attempts to overcome writer's block and deliver his initially throwaway Heart of Darkness on time to Blackwood's Magazine: pressure that warps a conventional tale into something wayward, experimental and path-breaking. E.M. Forster's A Passage to India is shown to be stifled by a culpable timidity; James Joyce is shown to be the master of plurality and writerly chaos in the "Circe" section of Ulysses; Virginia Woolf's tactical delays and meditations direct the fluid tapestry of The Waves.
The fascination of "process" is imaginatively relayed throughout, and if such fascination overlays the wider intricacies of the reader's experience, Fordham has still produced a deeply impressive case for the possibilities of genetic criticism.
I do I undo I redo: The Textual Genesis of Modernist Selves
By Finn Fordham. Oxford University Press. 292pp, £55.00. ISBN 9780199569403. Published 14 January 2010