To criticise the critic
A year ago, Ian Hamilton described me as "a bouncy kind of guy" in the London Review of Books. I bounced a little, but then I resumed my more usual state. I lie down easily. But today the tables are turned: I get a crack at Hamilton. Prompted by thoughts of sweetest revenge, my head lifts up again.

Lifts up, and stays up. Hamilton's collection of essays The Trouble With Money (Bloomsbury, pounds 12.99) is a welcome pleasure. Worse, it perhaps deserves to become a latterday belletristic classic. Its contents are mainly literary, most of them longer book reviews. Either because Hamilton has been astute in what he takes on, or because he has been uncannily well served by editors, his book exhibits an unlikely steadiness of focus.

His speciality is his pursuit of the downside of the authorial existence, and the difficulties that beset his profession. One by one he lines them up: Cyril Connolly, Elizabeth Bishop, Stephen Spender, Salman Rushdie, Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin - above all, Larkin. In each case, there is something less than wholesome about the life. He has an ear for gossip, and for anecdote. But only just so far: his skill is partly one of restraint, and his vignettes are humanely, nay beautifully, balanced.

With Blake Morrison I had a contrary experience. I liked his two previous books inordinately: And When Did You Last See Your Father? and the Bulger- based As If. Maybe disappointment was inevitable. Too True (Granta, pounds 9.99) is another gathering of literary journalism: Morrison's declared interest is in "non-fiction narrative", and the techniques writers use to sustain an aura of truthfulness. Strangely, despite a judicious opening survey, he ignores travel writing. But the ulterior motive of this introduction is to prepare the ground for autobiographical excursions: growing up on the edge of the Dales; reading English at Nottingham; plotting retribution against the council-estate kids he presumes have stolen his own son's bicycle.

These sketches are scattered among more journeyman articles: encounters with Ted Hughes, Valerie Eliot, Penelope Leach; the North-South divide; a reappraisal of - who else? - Larkin the Unlovable. The problem is that, whatever Morrison writes about, his conclusions are too bland. He may be right, but inconsequentiality is scant reward for perseverance. Attempting a common-sense sociology, the print-out can be disturbingly Pathe News- ish.

Michael Wood's Children of Silence (Pimlico, pounds 12.50) is altogether more serious-minded. Wood writes intensely and often penetratingly about the likes of Barthes, Beckett, Calvino and Kundera. His particular concerns are the silence he sees as the precondition for his novelists' imagination to work in, and the postmodernist quest for paradisiacal dream states. His arguments are intricate, and indebted to critical forebears - not just Barthes, but also Benjamin and other western Marxists.

Modishly, Wood subscribes to that part of theory that substitutes the equality of the reader's imagination for the "myth" of authorial autonomy. When he speaks of "the old quiet privilege of reading", however, another myth is perpetuated. I hazard that a true history of reading would produce myriad contra-indications; though whether it was ever quite such hard going as some of our professors make it is, as Morrison might put it, another matter.

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