There are some genres of literature whose continued survival, like that of the Bench of Bishops or the Cinque Port Wardens, is a matter for wonder and congratulation. The slim volume of sylvan poetry; the fading sportsman's autobiography; the cabinet minister's memoirs. Grateful that such items survive, the reader still asks the questions, "How do these things get published?" and, "Who buys them?" In this category reposes the book of reprinted reviews and articles, sometimes dignified by the subtitle "selected essays", but always - in an age of publishing cutbacks - having silently to justify its existence.
In fact, the current male quartet (for some reason men always seem keener on this kind of thing then women) have no single raison d'etre. William Boyd's excuse for the buxom doorstopper Bamboo (Hamish Hamilton, £20, 650pp; £18 inc. p&p from 0870 079 8897) ) is that, over the past quarter-century, in afternoons off from the serious business of novel and screenwriting, he has produced something like three-quarters of a million words of journalism, some of which is worth preserving. Tom Paulin, on the other hand, is a brainy don-cum-television personality whose tendency to write critical essays on aspects of the same, broad subject gives Crusoe's Secret: The Aesthetics of Dissent (Faber, £20/£18, 400pp) an instant thematic unity.
Clive James, alternatively, has tradition on his side. Every four years or so, pressed no doubt by an admiring publisher, he parcels up his journalism between hard covers: The Meaning of Recognition (Picador, £14.99/£13.99, 368pp) is the last half-decade's harvest. Christopher Hitchens's excuse is yet more compelling: we read Love, Poverty & War: Journeys and Essays (Atlantic, £14.99/£13.99, 475pp) less to refine our understanding of Brideshead Revisited (Boyd) or to wink at amusing reportage from the 2001 general election (James) but to get a sense, however partial or mid-Atlanticised, of how the world works.
In this field, size matters. Contemporary essayists try to impress with bulk. The effect of reading them one after another is immensely wearying. Not only do the same literary fixations tend to occur - there is clearly a thesis waiting to be written on "The impact of Evelyn Waugh on middle-aged literary Englishmen" - but so do some of the same anxieties and even the same riffs.
All this imparts a superficially homogeneous air to what are, in the end, very different books. Was it Boyd who hared off down Route 66 in a red Corvette, or Hitchens? Was it James who got so cross about the biographers of Primo Levi, or someone else? Only Paulin stands aside from this confusion. Austere and unimpressionable, as likely to be found piloting a car through the Texas boondocks as cultivating a taste for the novels of Ronald Firbank, he sticks exclusively to the text.
Personality inevitably obtrudes. One had an idea that Boyd would be interested in Africa and the mechanics of scriptwriting, and so it proves. The book reviews are punctilious rather than inspired, but the best bits in Bamboo are the reports from the professional coal-face: outtakes from the Burbank studio lots, the legal dispute with the French publisher who decided to stop paying royalties. The worst bits are the larky forays into capital low-life ("Minicabs", "The British Caff"), over which hangs the ghost of Martin Amis crying out to be allowed to do the job properly.
No such levity attends Paulin's musings. For all its academic gravity, the subtitle turns out to be faintly elastic. What was TS Eliot dissenting from? Or David Trimble? Paulin specialises in the close reading of standard works and the uncovering of unsuspected historical contexts. The title essay, which defines Robinson Crusoe as a kind of Puritan acrostic, or "an epic account of the experience of the English dissenters after the Restoration", is particularly good. I was a bit less convinced by "The Waste Land: a Keynesian Epic?", in which Paulin connects Eliot's poem to The Economic Consequences of the Peace and a whole lot more besides. At one point, he adduces a link between "April is the cruellest month" and the general prologue to The Canterbury Tales ("Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote..."), but surely one could say this of every English nature poet of the last half-millennium?
Clive James is now turning decidedly crusty. He is particularly irked by the failings, syntactical and other, of younger labourers in the literary vineyard. These "slapdash tryos" include the young biographer who "somehow dodged the remedial English course on his way to his honours degree". There are, of course, sins beyond defective grammar: one of them is omniscience. As ever with James, whose 13th such volume this is, one admires the range (from Isaiah Berlin to Bing Crosby), yawns at the eternal sarky wise-cracking, and wonders whether complaints about trash culture would be more effective did they not hail from a man whose own TV output surely had some part in its creation.
The three sections of Love, Poverty & War correspond to the triptych of the title: "Love" is mostly literary appreciations, together with voyages around America (it was Hitchens who plunged down Route 66); "Poverty" a series of assaults on such targets as the teaching of history in US schools and the Nazi-sympathising historian David Irving; and "War" - well, it seems hardly necessary to add what that's about.
The bookish pieces include an immensely thoughtful piece about Winston Churchill and a re-examination of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim. As well as establishing various connections with Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, it points out - something no one seems to have noticed - that one of the girls in Jim Dixon's tutorial group is named after Orwell's first wife. This may seem small beer when set against the crackle of the Baghdad thunder, of which the book's final third consists, but it exemplifies Hitchens's clear-eyed, busily resourceful technique. Not the least offence to messrs Boyd, Paulin and James, but this is the only item here I would have bought voluntarily had I not been given it to review.
D J Taylor's new novel, 'Kept', appears in February from ChattoReuse content