'Street-dumb.' 'Contrived.' Ouch!

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The Independent Culture
To do him justice, DJ Taylor - the D is for David - never intended to be a critic at all. When he came down from Oxford in the early Eighties, the idea was that he would be a novelist. To start with, things went according to plan: he wrote, and found a publisher for, a novel called Great Eastern Land which was, he says "the book you write when you sit down and write your first novel" (which is to say that much of it was semi-autobiographical, and that some of it was deliberately fantastic). At the time, he thought, "That's it, fine, I am a novelist."

Since then, there have been two more novels: the difficult second one, Real Life, which arrived after a long gestation in 1992; and now English Settlement, the story of an American expatriate at large in the City of London, published last month to a chorus of hoots and catcalls from the reviewers. "Street-dumb" (Independent); "imaginative, occasionally funny, but ultimately unengaging" (Guardian); "slick and contrived" (Daily Telegraph); "a thriller that doesn't thrill, a comedy that barely raises a smile, and a State of the Nation novel that says little about Britain in the 1990s'' (Sunday Telegraph).

It's hard not to detect some glee in all this - a sense that Taylor has been hoist by his own petard - because he has a reputation for being a notably harsh critic himself. This wasn't, as I say, the original idea. But in the mid 1980s, having published his first novel and looking around for ways of earning a bit more money, he ran smack into the newspaper revolution: new papers were springing up, books sections were burgeoning, "and suddenly there were all these people saying 'Come and review books for us.' I found myself reviewing about three books a week, and this was wonderful at the age of 26 or 27 because you suddenly think you're a cultural pundit. And not only did I find myself reviewing lots of books, but I found myself having a line, and my line was 'I don't like a lot of this.' And I really didn't."

The result was that he rapidly earnt for himself a niche as one of the angry young men of literary criticism, blazing away fearlessly at established reputations (Kingsley Amis, Margaret Drabble, Kingsley Amis, Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis, Graham Swift - not forgetting Kingsley Amis).

His objections to modern fiction were crystallised, more or less, in A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 1980s, which was advertised by the publishers as "a provocative antidote to Booker Prize ballyhoo by one of the most acute and acerbic of our younger critics". It is a short and angry book, written during a fortnight's holiday in 1989 and consequently packed with huge contradictions - reviewing another of his books a couple of years later, one critic wrote that reading A Vain Conceit was "like watching Nigel Short play chess with himself; paragraph followed paragraph in a sequence of thrusts and parries, moves and countermoves, in which neither player ever looked like winning".

Taylor doesn't disown that volume ("Great fun to do, and enabled one to get a lot off one's chest"), but he admits frankly that it was written in a hurry, to satisfy a publisher. It would be fairer to judge his views by what he wrote in After the War (1993), a study of the relationship between the British novel and British society: again, his views aren't fully worked out - he wavers between a complaint that novelists are no longer capable of writing about society, and a lament that society is now too big and complicated to be written about - but many of his remarks on the way that writers have written about politics, and his comments on established reputations, are sharp (in both senses) and more fully argued than in the earlier book.

Nevertheless, A Vain Conceit has become Taylor's albatross: "It certainly stored up trouble, in terms of, a lot of people didn't like that book, didn't like what it was saying about some famous names, and I still find that it comes back to haunt me. Even now, people are writing reviews of English Settlement, seven years later, and quoting what I said at the age of 28 or whatever back at me." The Observer review of the English Settlement remarked that in A Vain Conceit, Taylor's "exegesis was shrewd and perspicacious; but as a novelist he seems to have as little idea as those he criticises on how to write convincingly about the present."

You may feel that this is no more than justice: if a critic is prepared to wield the knife, he should be prepared to feel its edge. Then again, as Taylor notes: "This is what happens if you set yourself up as a critic and a novelist simultaneously - the right hand always forgets what the left hand is doing and just starts writing something because it thinks it's interesting. Which is how it probably should be..." In any case, realistically, you can never expect absolute congruence between a writer's ideas of how art should be, and what he actually produces - not unless he has very low standards. The lesson to be learnt from Taylor's experience is, in the end, this: when people tell you that it's easy to criticise, don't believe them. RH

n 'English Settlement' is published by Chatto, pounds 15.99