Ignore the critics, Morrissey's Autobiography is a new kind of classic

Our culture has become obsessive about literary correctness; here's the antidote

Share

It is factual Hindley and Brady, and not our spirited Lake poets or cozy tram-trammeled novelists, who supply the unspoken and who take the travelling mind further than it ever ought to have gone ...

This serpentine sentence from Morrissey’s just-released Autobiography underlines why it is such a brilliant and timely book. Like many passages in the Troubled One’s memoir, there’s a bit of everything here. Baroque, head-twisting sentence structure? Check. Weird, neologistic compound adjectives (“tram-trammeled”)? Check. Effortless summary of post-Romantic British cultural history, from Wordsworth and Coleridge via kitchen-sink realism to the Moors Murderers? Check, check, and double check. This stuff is destined to be quoted as definitive epigraph material on a thousand Wikipedia articles before the month is out.

More to the point, Morrissey’s micro-critique of mainstream English literature and its hide-bound poets and novelists offers a pre-emptive strike against those critics grumbling about that fact that Autobiography has been published via the hallowed Penguin Classics imprint. For Boyd Tonkin, writing in this paper, Penguin’s decision to release the book as a Classic undermined “67 years of editorial rigueur and learning”. The Guardian’s John Harris was less damning in his review, but even he criticised the apparent “lack of editing”.

Penguin Classics is a commercial brand rather than a democratically agreed-upon cultural pantheon, so in a sense quibbling about its roster is a tad pointless (like most private corporations, Penguin will inevitably publish books in whatever format works best in the literary marketplace, and few could doubt that Morrissey’s tome will sell well in its chunky black vintage duffle coat). But even allowing for this caveat, I can’t help feeling that the criticisms levelled at Morrissey’s memoir – that it is messy, self-indulgent, poorly edited, and therefore unworthy of “classic” status – spectacularly miss the point.

We live in a culture that has become obsessive about literary correctness. In the absence of a vibrant intellectual scene, contemporary letters has calcified around the London publishing industry and its guardians of literary taste and decorum. Young authors today write not for an increasingly uninterested public, but in the hope that their work will be given a review in one of the big publications or boosted into commercial viability by a nomination for one of the many artificially-generated, publicity-enhancing prize ceremonies that clog up the literary calendar. As in so many other walks of British life, this culture of competitive anxiety has led not to a rise in standards, but to a dramatic decline in artistic production, to innumerable formulaic books written by creative writing course alumni that read like application forms addressed to the Booker judges.

What is so refreshing about Morrissey’s Autobiography is its very messiness, its deliriously florid, overblown prose style, its unwillingness to kowtow to a culture of literary formula and commercial pigeon-holing. A heavy-handed editor mindful of the book’s Classic branding might have abridged it down into a sedate, prize-worthy volume void of idiosyncrasy and colour. Thankfully – and yes, most likely because of Morrissey’s celebrity clout and reputation for intransigence – no such airbrushing has taken place.

Instead, Autobiography is a true baggy monster, a book in which a distinctive prose persona is allowed to develop free from the strictures of contemporary literary orthodoxy. The result is, on the whole, a rococo triumph that melds together a host of canonical and marginal literary influences in exactly the same way that the Smiths’ music was a wonderful amalgam of both the eccentric and the classic sides of pop.

People will no doubt pick up on the traditional Morrissey points of reference – Oscar Wilde, Alan Bennett, kitchen sink drama – but the book also glances at Colm Tóibín (in the sections about Morrissey’s Irish mother and female relatives), W.H. Auden (who is actually quoted at one point), and an array of late-twentieth-century pop iconography (Motown, Miss World, glam, punk, George Best). At times, with its endlessly lugubrious passages and its outrageous self-mythologising, Autobiography reads like Anthony Burgess’s memoir Little Wilson and Big God translated into the diction of Tennyson.

True, the latter half of the book sags under the weight of way too much bitching and the dreary subject matter of celebrity and affluence. But overwhelmingly this is a book to be thankful for, a book that – like the vast majority of canonical prose works – should be forgiven for its digressions and its longueurs. I say nothing of the marketing narrative, or of how the book will fare with the passing of time, but right now, in the ways that matter, Autobiography reads like a work of genuine literary class.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas