by George Simmers
My conference paper will be about how P. G.Wodehouse portrayed the business of writing in some of his early stories and novels. Often his fiction presents a clear contrast – on the one hand, the diligent commercial craftsman, concerned above all else with producing well-made work that will
connect with mainstream readers, and on the other the self-indulgent and self-satisfied ‘artist’, mostly interested in self-expression, probably in free verse.
I was therefore very interested in Ann-Marie Einhaus’s blog post about Wodehouse and Pratchett, and am looking forward to her paper on the difficulties that canon-makers have with unpretentious and entertaining writers like these.
Wodehouse never lacked for fans among the literary elite. Arnold Bennett, Evelyn Waugh and Hilaire Belloc all paid tribute to his virtuosity. Yet he has been marked out as ‘entertaining’ rather than deserving of analysis, even by his admirers. The back of my paperback copy of The Inimitable Jeeves contains a typically oozy quotation from Stephen Fry: ‘You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour.’ This kind of attitude has meant that Wodehouse, one of the most astonishingly brilliant writers of his time, has received remarkably little critical close attention.
Many other reasons have contributed to this relative neglect. He is an easy writer to get along with, and critics get more kudos from grappling with the difficult. There are many more volumes devoted to the obscurities of Ezra Pound than to the lucidities of Edward Thomas or John Betjeman. Wodehouse is funny and unpretentious, and many critics prefer to deal with the self- evidently serious. He is popular, and doubtless some critics feel that he does not need them to work as as mediators between writer and public.
More than this, though, he was commercial, and, from the early twenties onwards, very obviously one of the most materially successful writers of his age.
Literary academics (and this was especially true in the first half of the twentieth century, when English was still struggling to establish itself as a serious university discipline) have tended to find commercial success something difficult to deal with. When commenting on contemporary literature they have usually wanted to position themselves high above the values of the market place. The most privileged authors have been the modernists who deliberately placed themselves outside the commercial mainstream. Maybe there is also a touch of would-be-Bohemian romanticism, when tenured professors thrill to stories of Ezra Pound sending poverty-stricken Joyce a pair of old shoes, in an anecdote that definitively proves (if proof were needed) Joyce’s utter artistic seriousness. Such academics have found it far more difficult to warm to a writer like Wodehouse, or like Arnold Bennett, with his love of money, his delight in grand hotels and his pride in his yacht. Bennett’s considerable achievement has surely been under-valued, and this must at least in part because (shock! horror!) he wrote for money, and was never ashamed of the fact. The modernist critics who lauded the explicitness about sexual matters in writers like Joyce and Lawrence have tended to shy
away from the commercial frankness of writers like Bennett and Wodehouse.
This squeamishness has been evident in some reviews of Sophie Ratcliffe’s recent excellent edition of Wodehouse’s letters. Wodehouse often refers to the amounts he has been paid for his work, especially when writing to fellow-authors, who would be interested in such matters. A number of reviewers have seized on such references with distaste. Philip Hensher in the Telegraph, for example, declares that in his letters Wodehouse ‘shows himself to be interested in money to an unnatural degree’, and when he calls him ‘a hard-nosed professional’ this is not praise.
Is there an assumption here that mainstream writers who succeed in the market-place can only do so by kowtowing to the standards of the market, and must inevitably lose their integrity? Is this a true assumption? Is a popular audience more likely to be corrupting than a private patron like that
generous but rather nasty man John Quinn, who seems to have brought out the worst in Eliot and Pound?
It is now over a century since Wodehouse began to write. I’d say it was time for critics to look beyond old prejudices, and give his best writing their full attention.
George’s blog: http://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com