Common Writing: Essays on literary culture and public debate

S. Collini (Oxford University Press, 2016), 368pp, £30.00 (hbk)
ISBN 978 01 98758 96 9

Reviewed by Jenny Roberts

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Common Writing consists of review essays on British writers, critics, historians and public intellectuals from the early 20th century to the present. It mainly discusses new biographies, collections of letters or new editions of works, but with additional comment on more general topics such as what makes a public intellectual. The chapters, each containing two or three essays, are roughly grouped by some common aspect of those discussed – ‘critics’, ‘modernists’, ‘moralists’ and so on. Some of the subjects are rather loosely linked, some more tightly. The chapters on ‘migrants’ (Nikolaus Pevsner, Isaiah Berlin, Isaac Deutscher, Ernest Gellner) and ‘new Orwells’ (Christopher Hitchens, Tony Judt, Timothy Garton Ash) come into the latter category and are two of the most interesting.

Collini is hugely knowledgeable about British cultural and intellectual history; his writing is accessible, often witty and amusing, incisive but always humane. I was looking forward to new insights into figures I know well and wasn’t disappointed. I found the essays on C. S. Lewis, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, David Lodge, Christopher Hitchens and Roy Jenkins particularly perceptive. I was also thoroughly engaged by the discussion of those I’m much less familiar with, such as J. B. Priestley, Maurice Bowra, William Empson, Lionel Trilling and Hugh Trevor-Roper.

My major criticism of the book is the lack of women subjects – no female novelists or poets are discussed and there’s no mention of the influential female philosophers who emerged from Oxford in the 1940s (Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, Iris Murdoch, Mary Warnock). The only women dealt with in any depth are the social historian Barbara Hammond (discussed as half of ‘the Hammonds’) and the economic historian Eileen Power. A second problem is that political analysis, such as in the last two chapters, inevitably suffers from not being quite up to date, although scathing comments on the rhetoric of ‘rights’ and ‘entitlement’ and the sloppiness of attitude survey language in the review of government reports strikes a contemporary chord. Finally, there’s absolutely no mention of the internet in the book – which seems a striking omission.

Is there anything in Collini’s book that is specifically useful for copyeditors? Well, there’s a wonderful diatribe about the end notes in a biography of C. Day-Lewis: ‘this inane mixture of intrusiveness and uninformativeness’. And there’s the story of Umberto Eco’s letter to the editor of The Times Literary Supplement, which had published a heavily edited article by him: ‘I enjoyed your article, but I preferred my own’. Otherwise, the book has no particular relevance to the work of SfEP members; but those of us who have worked in the general area of literary and cultural criticism and struggled with prose that often seems wilfully obfuscatory will certainly welcome Collini’s admirably lucid and jargon-free writing.

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