Books: Toffs against toughs

D J Taylor applauds a grand tour of the language, but finds that it loses its way on the home stretch
The New Oxford Book of English Prose

edited by John Gross

Oxford University Press, pounds 25, 1104pp

The original Oxford Book of English Prose, benignly if somewhat warily edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, appeared in 1925. Its trick was to solve the problem of the modern movement in literature by pretending that it did not exist. Restricting its orbit to "writers who had already solidified their work by 1914", Quiller-Couch's anthology managed to find space for prelapsarian golden boys such as Rupert Brooke and Compton Mackenzie while ignoring Lawrence, Woolf and Joyce. That said, only the most confident of talent-spotters should amuse themselves with the discovery that John Gross's recension, while including nine pieces of Joyceana and 11 pages of Lawrence and Woolf, is devoid of anything by the authors of "At Grantchester" and Sinister Street.

is an anthology on the grand scale. Who can tell what tracts of John Gross's professional life its compilation took up, and what agonies of judgement afflicted its compiler?

The effect of looking at it for any length of time is quite bewildering; like watching one of those "Great moments in sport" videos. As inch-perfect putt succeeds dazzling header and flawless boundary gives way to jinking touch-down, the reader is first impressed and then merely stupefied by the successive plateaux of excellence on view. Gaskell, Elizabeth; Ghali, Wagui; Gibbon, Edward... "Bloody golden eggs again," as the narrator of Flaubert's Parrot observed, "haven't we had enough omelettes this year?"

What is the point of these things? Who buys them? What are they trying to do? Fit the quintessence of English, or a substantial part thereof, into a single rucksack-sized volume? Market literature on the taster principle, in the hope that the reader, having worked his way through the 500-word sample of Anthony Powell's Afternoon Men, will go out and buy the paperback?

In a characteristically tough-minded introduction, John Gross sets out his objectives: to produce something "representative", to "illustrate the resources and achievements of English prose as an artistic medium" and to include items for their intrinsic value rather than historical usefulness. Totting up the strike-rate, one can hardly fail to award him three hits out of three, while at the same time wondering if some of the targets were worth aiming at in the first place.

To be sure, this bountiful trawl through the novels, stories, diaries, letters, essays and miscellaneous journalism of five centuries (the trail begins with Thomas Malory and ends with Kazuo Ishiguro) is "representative" in the sense that the kind of people one expects to find in compendia of this sort are there, together with the pieces one associates with them. Thus a glance at Thackeray turns up "Going to see a Man Hanged", Orwell's extracts include "A Hanging" (capital punishment always goes down well in anthologies, for some reason), while one of George Gissing's entries homes in on the much-recapitulated misery of the veteran Victorian literary man Alfred Yule. To do Gross justice, quite as many of the selections are less well-known: a piece of Shaw's consistently entertaining music criticism, a fragment of John Meade Falkner's The Nebuly Coat, the Victorian critic George Saintsbury on Robert Southey.

To eclecticism and wide range can be added some weird omissions. This is most marked among the Americans (where, to name only the most obvious absentees, are Upton Sinclair, James T Farrell, Nelson Algren, Peter Taylor, Hubert Selby Jr and Fred Exley, of each of whom it can fairly be said that they left American English in a slightly different state from the condition in which they picked it up?) but it also applies to the 19th and 20th-century English. Among the former, no sign of Pierce Egan's rollicking Life in London (1823), which influenced practically every male writer of the next 40 years, Douglas Jerrold, R H Hutton, G H Lewes (his theatre criticism in particular) or half a dozen other stylists whose misfortune it was not to have left a single defining book for posterity to pillage.

The early 20th century is better covered, though I missed A C Benson, whose diaries Gross ought to know, and M R James. Meanwhile, the whole tradition of proletarian writing (Robert Tressell, Walter Greenwood, James Harley, Jack Common) escapes him completely.

Gross talks about it being possible to come away from the book "with some general sense of the evolution of English prose". This may be true of the pre-1900 extracts, and the bridges between, say, the Augustans and the Romantics, but I don't think it is true of the 20th century. If it comes to that, how has English prose evolved in the past 100 years, after the breakdown of Latinate, Victorian style?

Essentially, 20th-century English prose has become a kind of dogfight between the mandarin school (Waugh, Connolly, Powell et al) and the demotic (Orwell's baton taken up by the Angries). This battle has never been completely resolved, and some of its confusions are evident in the work of many a contemporary novelist. Martin Amis, for example, combines street-sharpery with a resolute, residual classicism. Little of this can be deduced from much of Gross's post-1945 offerings, which reduce themselves to fragments by the likes of Bradbury, Lodge and Co, or an unremarkable excerpt from Clive James's memoirs.

If there's a complaint to be made about the English prose of the last quarter century as represented here, it's that there are too few polemical journalists: no sign of Shiva Naipaul, for instance, or E P Thompson. Vigorous English prose still gets written on this side of the Atlantic, of course: the old superiority-of-the-US-novel line seems barely tenable these days. But, somehow, little of it seems to surface in the pages of "literary" novels. The best writing of the late 1970s was far more likely to be found in the Spectator and New Statesman than in Margaret Drabble's sapless novels.

None of the foregoing is intended as a criticism of John Gross, whose The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969) is one of the classic exercises in literary historiography; merely a restatement of some of the difficulties involved in producing a book of this kind. As you might expect, contains some marvellous stuff, but it omits some too, and, as ever, one wishes that a few more risks had been taken. To borrow a form first coined by Francis King in a review of a Kingsley Amis novel: not many people could have produced a better anthology than this, but John Gross is one of them.