Books: A right bunch of prosers

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The New Oxford Book of English Prose

ed John Gross Oxford pounds 25

Defined by the OED as "the ordinary form of written or spoken language", "prose" is by any reckoning a large category. Since the English language as we know it has been around for 500-odd years, the sub-category "English prose" is almost as awesome. Just think of it - 500 years of diaries and histories, sermons and philosophical treatises, novels and legal documents, newspaper articles and billets doux, scientific papers, political speeches, Biblical commentaries, pornography, dictionary definitions and short stories - the number growing exponentially with increasing literacy and cheaper printing. Phew.

Somehow, from these zillions of written words, the editor of this new anthology has had the onerous task of choosing just enough to fill a single volume. At over 1,000 pages, it is admittedly a bulky object, too heavy for reading comfortably in bed. Even so, it is barely able to contain all the protean forms which prose can take. For the sake of space, the editor has decided, for example, to dispense with dramatic prose. Playwrights therefore get short shrift, and a reader from another planet would come away completely unaware that Oscar Wilde was capable of producing a masterpiece such as The Importance of Being Earnest.

The present volume is designed to replace an earlier version of 1925 edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, whose guiding principle was his desire to use English prose as a measure of Englishness. Today, that approach seems not merely parochial but almost distasteful. Nobody would now pretend that literature in English, especially since 1925, was the preserve of writers born in England or even Britain. Yet Quiller-Couch's method did have the advantage of limiting his scope. John Gross, quite understandably, can't bear to exclude those writers from India and Australia, America and Africa, even Russia and Japan, who have enriched English prose. But in doing so he widens the field so far that you're left desperate for some sort of analysis or commentary to help you make sense of it all.

One 19th-century American piece reproduces the speech patterns, pronunciation and opinions on slavery of a New Orleans black woman. As I've never (to my shame) heard of The Grandissimes by George Washington Cable, I could not know whether I was encountering the recorded words of a real person - spoken prose miraculously rescued from oblivion - or whether I was reading a white man's fiction. In cases where I did know the work in question, I wondered what someone who didn't would make of it. Esther Waters's callous treatment by the staff of the maternity hospital must seem inexplicable if you do not know that she is unmarried. How do you judge a description of Frith's Derby Day if you have never seen the picture? Or understand John Lyly's odd use of rhetorical parallelism if you never heard of Euphuism?

The trouble is that while successful anthologies of verse tend to limit themselves to short, self- contained lyrics, there are few prose works - apart from Aubrey's Brief Lives - which are "extractable". As a result, the diary entry emerges with an unreasonably high success rate as a literary genre, while an extract of a few pages simply can't do justice to a lengthy novel such as Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. Ripping short passages out of context automatically gives certain prose styles an unfair advantage. Authors like Dickens and Martin Amis, whose use of imagery verges on the hyperactive, will do better than, say, J L Austin, who is going to remain opaque to non-philosophers, however clear his style. Journalists and humourists have a field day. Clive James's account of his childhood infatuation with confectionery jumps up and down on the page shouting, "Look at me! Love me!" Superficial, attention-seeking prose wins hands down.

By arranging the extracts chronologically, Gross is inviting us to read his book as an evolutionary history. Yet because they are taken from so many different genres it is hard to compare like with like and thus to chart changing beliefs about what makes good prose. One way of tracking this process might have been to create an anthology in which extracts took as their subject prose itself, so that one could make an instant comparison not only between authors' styles and opinions but between form and content within a single extract. Rooting around in Gross's lucky dip, we get glimpses of this - Milton in 1642 is still a Renaissance man, expressing his ambition to "adorn" his native tongue and bringing a fiery poeticism to "the cool element of prose"; while by 1667, Bishop Sprat is looking forward to the scientific revolution with his strictures on "mathematical plainness" - but there is little sense of historical momentum.

It would be churlish to carp too much at John Gross for the inevitable inadequacies of this book. Reading between the lines, one feels that his brief preface suggests that it may have been apparent even to him that the project was doomed from the start. All anthologists are going to experience a tension between the desire to include and the need to exclude, but prose, being simply a medium, invites a potentially anarchic inclusiveness. The real question raised by this ill- conceived book is: what is it for? There are two reasons why people buy anthologies: as Christmas presents which end up on the bedside table in the spare room, or as works of reference. This one fails on both counts, not being pleasurable enough for the former or informative enough for the latter.