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The review as cultural bridge

Enda O’Doherty writes: Whenever I’m asked to say some words in public on the subject of what the Dublin Review of Books is all about, which thankfully isn’t too often, I usually resort to quoting a formula of sorts which I read many years ago from the pen of a frequent contributor to those prestigious literary reviews which acted to a certain extent as model for the drb itself. Our review, of course, is about many things and there is no single acceptable way of writing for it. Nor does it have the same resources as most of the publications it admires. All the same, these words of the critic Frank Kermode concerning the modern literary review and what it publishes still give me something of a warm glow. The “review-essay”, a form which usually runs to between 2,500 and 4,500 words, occupies, he writes, a middle ground between the newspaper book review and the public (usually university) lecture.

It is in my view a satisfactory genre, for the writer can be moderately expansive and please himself, as well as modestly explanatory and willing to please, with due amenity, the sort of reader who reads these journals [Kermode has previously referred to the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books]. It is almost true to say that this middle ground between the barbarous jargons and swollen books of the modern academy and the quick satisfactions of the newspaper review is nowadays cultivated only by a few journals like these, and it is just as well for our intellectual well-being that they should exist. The understanding between writer and reader is that the former will perform as an educated audience has a right to expect, and that the latter will, under these conditions, take pleasure in what may from time to time be a mildly strenuous bit of reading, justified by a faith that authors who write for these papers on the whole know what they are talking about, but are not so proud of that accomplishment that they cannot refrain from vainglorious displays of their professional prowess. (From Pleasing Myself: From Beowulf to Philip Roth, 2001)

There are a few items here which could perhaps benefit from being glossed. The writer of the “review-essay”, who will often if not always be an academic, can, Kermode writes, be “moderately expansive and please himself”. That is he, or she, will escape from the usual “seven hundred words would be good” injunction of the newspaper editor while at the same time addressing a much larger audience than that of the learned journal. There are of course academics who have no particular desire to address larger audiences – and long may they be permitted to survive. But there is an argument perhaps that at least some of the practitioners of, let us say for example university history, should be willing to demonstrate to the public how interesting and indeed important their subject is by engaging with a wider (and of course somewhat older) readership ‑ and in the process become “modestly explanatory” and willing to please.

The rules governing the review-essay are not particularly strict: editors cannot always absolutely be choosers (at least not all editors) and a little originality of approach, or even eccentricity, can be tolerated. Kermode mentions a range of 2,500 to 4,500 words. The lower figure is about right as a starting point for this kind of exercise, but the drb has on occasion been prepared to stretch the higher one, particularly if the degree of explanation or filling in of context necessary for the reader to properly make sense of the topic is a little more than merely modest, as can often be the case with a historical subject: in this case the expansiveness of the reviewer is a function of the need to explain (rather than just an example of “and here’s another thing I know”). Kermode rightly goes on to speak of the review-writer’s “tacit contracts with the author under consideration and the readers of the review: both of which require that they provide a fair account of the book and write decently about it”.


Though hugely intellectually gifted, insightful and urbane, Frank Kermode thought of himself as something of an outsider. He was certainly born “outside”, on the Isle of Man, and though his parents expected him to return there after university (Liverpool) to teach in the grammar school he had attended, he did not. Instead he went on a tour of provincial universities – Newcastle, Reading, Bristol and Manchester, before a longer spell at University College London and, eventually, Cambridge (“a cauldron of unholy hates” apparently) and Harvard. Throughout his long career Kermode worked both – or all – sides of the literary street, from teaching and publishing (both criticism and editing, notably of the New Arden edition of The Tempest) to the editorship of literary/cultural journals like Encounter (he resigned after revelations about covert CIA funding) and involvement with popular education projects like the Fontana Modern Masters series, of which he was general director. John Mullan has written of his major critical work:

Romantic Image (1957) ... secured his intellectual reputation. It was an account of the continuities between Romanticism and Modernism, with the poetry of Yeats at its heart. With its easy erudition, but not a footnote in sight, this book seems a long way from today’s average academic output. In range it is huge, reaching into European and classical literature, aesthetic philosophy as well as poetry, verse from the Renaissance as well as the 19th and 20th centuries – yet in tone it is modest, provisional (it calls itself an essay). Learning with a certain lightness was his style.

In May 2010 James Shapiro wrote that “the best living reader of Shakespeare, anywhere, hands down, is Frank Kermode”, a mantle that Shapiro himself may since have inherited. Kermode had no difficulty grappling with complex ideas (in the poetry of John Donne and Wallace Stevens for example) or writing for a specialised, university audience. But he also, particularly later in his career, insisted that literature could and should give pleasure, and if this pleasure was to be brought out for a larger audience the best advice for reviewers came in Lord Chesterfield’s words: “Speak the language of the company you are in: and speak it purely, and unlarded with any other.”

Sir Frank Kermode died in August 2010. He was born one hundred years ago today.

29/11/2019

John Mullan’s obituary: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/aug/18/sir-frank-kermode-obituary