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.