The Book of the Week: Common Reading

Rónán McDonald lauds a fine British essayist

February 28, 2008

According to Stefan Collini there is too much talk of cultural decline. People have always been nostalgic for a supposed golden age of letters, even during the golden age itself. But if there is something to mourn, it could be the decline in serious drinking. Having detailed the astonishing daily intake of the American critic Edmund Wilson, Collini notes that, during his final years, Wilson was forced to cut back radically and was "confined to a 'pint a day' (and we're not talking beer)".

It is a theme that emerges again and again, as if drink and productivity had some sort of strange symbiosis. For Wilson and for William Empson, the bottle may have prompted creativity. But in other cases the writing became a surrogate crutch. For the reactionary Oxford don A.L. Rowse, writing was a compulsive addiction in itself. "It hardly comes as a surprise to learn that he was a teetotaller," says Collini.

So some drink to write, some write not to drink. Of course the biggest group - those who drink not to write - escape the biographer's attention. The writers treated here have gained an afterlife because they were awesomely prodigious."Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be alike," rues V. S. Pritchett, no slouch himself, "they never stop working ... It is very depressing."

Collini's Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, which delighted reviewers in 2006, confounded the notion that Britain is an anti-intellectual culture. Common Reading continues his investigations into British intellectual history, but these are no mere scrapings from the cutting-room floor.

The essays here, most of which were first published in the London Review of Books or the Times Literary Supplement, showcase Collini's gifts for the essay form, mirroring the natural habitat of many of the public intellectuals who feature in his collection. It is divided into two sections, "Writing lives" and "Reading matters". The first gathers 15 essays on individual writers, critics and historians. The second, comprising nine essays, looks at broader topics such as the role of the periodical, the changing fortunes of the critic and the relationship between politics and culture in the postwar period.

There is an emphasis on biography, and Collini is skilled at portraiture. His style is capacious, fair minded and unbuttoned, alert to the quirks of personality and the conflicts of creative restlessness. He has a feel for paradox and ambivalence. Comparing Empson's accommodating style of the 1930s with a pugilistic streak in his later letters, Collini remarks that "he becomes less winning and more concerned to win".

This two-handed approach is by no means to suggest that he is a complacent liberal. In one of the few sour notes in the reception of Absent Minds, Terry Eagleton suggested that "Collini has the air of the genial but apolitical don, with little sense of the power and oppression that underlie social relations; for him, society is just a delightfully diverse set of positions and opinions, with nothing as vulgar as a dominant power in view". Measured against several of the essays here, this judgment looks hollow.

Collini claims that the left-wing historian E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (1963) has timely relevance when "a triumphalist corporate capitalism operating within a consumerist facsimile of democracy holds undisputed sway". Collini hardly lacks a political sensibility. However, his mostly admiring assessment of the Marxist intellectual Perry Anderson suggests that it can be politically sclerotic to default to the left-right poles: "The centre always turns out to be uninhabitable ground in Anderson's polarising political topography: the 'logic' of the underlying affiliations will out." Thus Anderson "acts as a zealous health and safety inspector on behalf of the Left consumer, insisting that a range of interesting writing be labelled 'Dangerous: may contain liberalism'."

Furthermore, Collini is aware that the biographical approach can militate against social analysis. Focusing on a single life often mutes attention to the "mechanisms through which a class or other grouping maintains, exercises and reproduces its social power". He is, therefore, alert to ideology, always on the lookout for uses to which narrative understandings of the past are deployed in the present, how figures such as George Orwell, Cyril Connolly or Wilson, or periods such as Victorianism, can become swathed in nostalgia.

There is much justified scepticism here towards such post-lapsarian narratives. However, through fatigue brought on by the oft-repeated warnings of cultural degeneration, Collini may be in danger of missing a genuine cause for worry. In his essay on periodicals he dismisses those who bemoan the end of literate culture by pointing out the enduring provision of publication outlets for reviews and cultural critique. But numerous venues for criticism do not in themselves create critical health, as the rise of the internet and the blogosphere amply attest.

At the conclusion of "From deference to diversity: culture in Britain 1945-2000", Collini implicitly identifies an obstacle to evaluative criticism, "one, largely extraneous and inherited, form of confidence has been eroded without yet being replaced by another that would allow discriminations of quality to be persuasively made on intrinsic rather than merely instrumental grounds". In other words, the absence of some aesthetic compass to replace the old functions of deference and hierarchy may impede our ability to talk about artistic values. This implicitly recognises a cultural inarticulacy that Collini elsewhere dismisses.

This one caveat apart, this collection shows the considerable talents and erudition of one of Britain's finest essayists and writers.

Rónán McDonald is senior lecturer in modern English literature, University of Reading, and author of The Death of the Critic.


Stefan Collini's search for what it is that makes an intellectual has taken him all over the world. Educated at the universities of Cambridge and Yale, he has held visiting appointments in Canberra, Caracas, Paris and Princeton, as well as teaching at Sussex and at Cambridge, where he is currently professor of intellectual history.

His fascination with the intellectual in Britain seems to stem from the refusal of many eminent British thinkers to adopt the title. "There is a long history of denial that intellectuals exist in Britain ... The belief is that they're always found elsewhere, in other places. Alternatively, 'elsewhere' becomes the past and they've only died out recently," he has said.

He has written widely on 19th and 20th-century intellectual history and literature and is a frequent contributor to publications such as the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books.

Collini is a staunch defender of television and radio as means of academic entertainment and does not believe that the huge rise of the cult of the celebrity will bring the end of intellectual coherence, arguing: "I see no reason to suppose that intellectuals have become, or are just about to become, extinct."

Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics

By Stefan Collini
Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780199296781
Published 28 February 2008

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