Miles Kington: The Kafkaesque world of the Literary Label Committee

Some names never get an adjective at all. No one has ever used Doylian. But Doylesque wouldn't be right either. So no one talks about Doyle's prose style
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Why do we say Churchillian and not Churchillesque? Why do we say Kafkaesque and not Kafkaish? Why, when we think someone is saying "Mormon", does it turn out to be "Maughamian"?

The answers to all these questions lie in the workings of the Literary League's Language Label Committee. I was privileged to be present at a recent session of theirs. After the chairman had inducted a new member, Sam Podcast, a ginger-haired Essex librarian, he invited veteran member Professor Longrange to explain their methodology.

"Willingly," said the Professor. "Our job is to turn authors' names into adjectives. We turn DH Lawrence into Lawrentian. We authorise Dickensian, Chekhovian, Churchillian and so on."

"It seems," said the ginger-haired newcomer, "to be a question of just putting -ian on the end."

There was laughter.

"Oh that it were," said the Professor. "There are some names that convert very well into the -ian ending, but others that do not. That is why we have to say Kafkaesque, because Kafkian would not be right. Some names never get an adjective at all. Conan Doyle, for instance. Nobody to our knowledge has ever used our recommendation of Doylian. It never caught on. But Doylesque wouldn't be right either. So nobody ever talks about Doyle's prose style. Which is odd when you think that people do use the words Sherlockian and Holmesian and even Watsonian."

"Scottish school," said a balding man.

"What's that?" said the Professor, startled.

"Watsonian," said the balding man. "It's also the name given to the pupils and former pupils of George Watson's College in Edinburgh."

There was a general groan.

"We get a lot of ancillary trouble with school adjectives," said the chairman to young gingerhead. "Carthusian for Charterhouse and Wykehamist for Winchester. And whatever they call people from Shrewsbury."

"Shrewsburgers?" said someone. "Shrewsbuggers? Sheepshaggers?" came the irreverent chorus.

"Salopians," said the Professor strictly. "Now, when it comes to authors' names, there is a limited variety of possible endings. -Ian. -Esque. -Ic, as in Byronic..."

"What about -ish?" said the young man helpfully.

"No," said the Professor regretfully. "We never use that for authors. Only for characters from books. We talk about people being Pooterish, or Bunterish, but never Tolstoyish or Wildeish. With Alexander Pope, we tried Popish, but for obvious reasons that never caught on."

"What about Poe?" said the ginger-haired youth. "What is the adjective from Edgar Allan Poe?"

There was an awkward silence.

"That one still stumps us," said the Professor. "There are some names which are intractable. Waugh, for example. It's all very well writing 'Waughian' but how the hell do you pronounce it?"

"Couldn't you drawn an analogy with Shaw, and Shavian, and say Waugh, and Wavian?" said Ginger.

There was another silence.

"We like to keep the -vian ending strictly for authors ending in '-w' or '-we'," said the chairman. "Like Shaw, and... and..."

"Marlowe," said the Professor. "Marlowe and Marlovian. I am not sure there are any others."

"What about Borrow?" said Ginger. "George Borrow. He must be Borrovian. And Saul Bellow. Bellovian, I take it."

They looked at him with respect.

"Very good, Mr Podcast," said the chairman. "You catch on quick. Perhaps you would like to give your opinion on our latest conundrum. The works of the late Enid Blyton are again becoming unaccountably popular and we need an adjective to describe her oeuvre. 'Blytonian' is obvious. But by analogy with Byron and 'Byronic', perhaps 'Blytonic' might prove popular."

"Blytonic!" said Ginger. "No, that would never do. It has overtones of Titanic. And gin and tonic."

"Perhaps you're right," said the chairman. "Blytonian it is, then. Which moves us on to Fleming. Ian Fleming. Peter Fleming. Can anyone think of a halfway decent adjective from Fleming?"

In the ensuing long silence, I made my excuses and stepped out into the bright Hemingwayesque sunshine. Or do I mean Hemingwayian? Or Hemingwavian...?