Diana Spearman: The Novel and Society. Routledge and Kegan Paul 40s.
The only motive for reviewing this book, which, with its illiteracies, its nonsequiturs and its total lack of any basic critical skills, should never have been published, is that people might be misled by the false pretences of its title. So here is the core of the last paragraph: ‘For example, it seems clear that too close an identification of literature and society must be an obstacle to its wide enjoyment. If people are told that in order to appreciate a great writer it is necessary to understand the society in which he wrote, many busy scientists and technicians may decide not to bother, and many housewives and factory workers may feel that it is all too difficult for them.’ Admittedly this isn’t a conclusion, because this is the first we have heard of all those busy scientists and so on; it’s just tacked on as an afterthought. But it does show the general banal level of argument, and the pervasive complacency of the assertions (it would never dawn on Mrs Spearman of course that there might be grounds for dispute, that it could be said that all those busy scientists may regard literature as a frivolity they can’t afford).
This quotation also demonstrates the false pretences of the title. For Mrs Spearman is mainly concerned to show that there isn’t much connection between the novel and society. This could have been valuable, at least if she had concentrated on demolishing the mechanical ‘middle-class’ theory of the rise of the novel. But she simply hasn’t the equipment for doing this. For one thing, it is not always clear when she is attacking. Sometimes it seems to be Ian Watt, but in a discussion of Richardson, for example, she doesn’t even mention one of Watt’s most important points about the connections with Lockean epistemology.
There are worse faults. She thinks puritanism is synonymous with dissent, that sociology is synonymous with social determinism. She relies heavily and undiscriminatingly on secondary sources, with little direct engagement with the primary material ‘ . . . But, in the words of Chandler, the American critic who devoted several books to the genre, . . .’ she writes at one point as conclusive proof against a point made by an unnamed ‘modern critic’. And the footnote indicates that Chandler was writing in 1899! (This reverential evocation of ‘authorities’ is pervasive).
Mrs Spearman has never been trained as a literary critic. Or even as a clear thinker: ‘One feature of Chrétien’s writings is intensely realistic—the dialogue. Of course this is difficult to assess . . .’ (My italics). The preface acknowledges the help of Karl Popper.