Harry Cochrane 

Will To Power

The Written World, Kevin Power, Liliput Press, 2022, 256pp, £13.00 (paperback)

‘[M]ost books are bad. We all know this, but we seldom say it.’ What does Kevin Power mean by ‘most’, exactly? Well, of the 21 reviews that stack the back end of The Written World, five or six could qualify as, to a greater or lesser extent, positive. As for the rest, Will Self’s Umbrella is ‘unreadable’, Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time is ‘unfunny’, and Marilynne Robinson’s Lila contains ‘an awful lot of guessing and an awful lot of God’, with ‘a deadening lack of irony’. Like a dentist reassuring their patient before some root canal surgery, Power tends to prelude his more savage moments by endorsing the author’s earlier work. Thus Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings was a ‘deserving winner’ of the 2015 Booker Prize; Mohsin Ahmed’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is ‘a witty satire on 21st-century gangster capitalism’; and William Gibson has a proven record of writing sci-fi that interprets our real-world maladies. Just not this novel, not this time.

Only five of these 21 reviewed authors are women, and Power uses a paragraph of his essay ‘A Perishable Art’ to note ‘a certain overcorrection at work, in the assigning of reviews’. Meaning that, by and large, only women critics are trusted with books by women, at least in literary fiction. There are worthy reasons for this, Power recognizes, in a world where male novelists have traditionally dominated publishing and male reviewers have traditionally dominated the response. But ‘[i]f one of our hopes for literary fiction is that it might critique [gender as a social construct] and finally even, perhaps, transcend it, then the school-discoing of the book’s pages – boys on one side of the dance floor, girls on the other, with occasional awkward clinches in the middle – will tend to undermine that hope.’

Which should show that Power is far more than a literary attack dog given to occasional showers of beneficence. The bulk of the book consists of a dozen longer essays, few of which come down in favour of either the thesis or anthesis that they evaluate. For Power, irresolution is a virtue: ‘Zadie Smith’s Uncertainty’ hails Intimations, Smith’s collection of mid-Covid essays, as typical of ‘a great opener-out, a refuser of final thoughts’. After all, we had only been living with Covid-19 for six months when Intimations appeared: nobody was entitled to the definitive analysis of the pandemic. But even when we might be permitted to think that we have the final word on something, the nailed-down definition, Smith asks us to look again. For ‘racism’, a word to which we risk inuring ourselves, she substitutes ‘contempt’ – the visceral for the abstract, the personal for the structural.

In the opposite corner we have Martin Amis, the arch-proclaimer. Power argues that Amis’ great influence as an essayist is one that he never actually mentions: Oscar Wilde (‘Wilde at Heart’ is the name of the piece). He sees Amis as a late practitioner of art for art’s sake, where style is everything; where style, in fact, bulldozes the reader into assent. Never mind the actual merits of the point: we read such bon mots as ‘every life is a tragedy…Every life cleaves to the tragic curve’ and nod, in stunned agreement, subconsciously awestruck by the slant-rhymed noun-verb combo of ‘cleaves’ and ‘curve’, and never question whether it actually holds up. Perhaps this is because Amis’ epigram – which etymologically means ‘after-letter’ or ‘afterword’, i.e. the final word – is more a source of comfort than consternation: it combines a freeing determinism, tragic dignity, and the sense that we are all in it together. Wilde’s apothegms were dipped in the poison of class war and aimed at the loges: they ‘sought to provoke and disturb, [while] Amis’s solicit a cosy agreement.’ Again, compare Smith, than whom no living essayist ‘is less likely to bombard us with the heavy ordnance of epigram’.

Pot and kettle, of course. One suspects that Power’s assault on Amis comes from the same place as Geoffrey Hill’s fusillades against T. S. Eliot: a writer trying to escape the shadow of a dark, towering influence. But Amis’ trick of ‘master[ing] the world through style’ seems very much Power’s style – and a title like The Written World suggests an awareness of the writer’s will to, well, Power. Normally scrupulous about giving writers a fair hearing, he is not above the occasional summary execution. Take the opening to his review of Paul Auster’s 4-3-2-1:

   ‘First thought, best thought,’ wrote Jack Kerouac, offering perennial encouragement to the sort of writer who never has any thoughts at all. Since anyone’s first thought about anything is likely to be a cliché, the business of literature should be to look for the last thought – or, at the very least, to declare war on the stock response [cf. Amis’ The War Against Cliché]

    Paul Auster is a first-thought writer who has somehow acquired the reputation of being a deep-thought writer…

What follows doesn’t really matter: Power has already delivered the deathblow. This is back-to-front criticism, like a Soviet show trial: the assessment follows the judgement. We don’t read on for a balanced appraisal of Auster’s new book, but for the malicious pleasure of Power’s takedown.

For pleasure abounds in The Written World, most of it more edifying than that. The demolition jobs are the cheapest of its thrills. Power’s logic, his thought-processes, are in general as sumptuously balanced as his sentences, which manage to accommodate some unsettled and unsettling issues without knocking a single word out of place. His piece on Literary Theory (vs. Liberal Humanism) is a masterclass of intellectual poise. On the one hand, he remembers wondering why ‘so many of my lecturers appeared to be more interested in overturning bourgeois liberalism than they were in reading novels’. On the other hand, the sort of intellectual who considers Theory a Trojan horse for moral relativism is often expressing, consciously or unconsciously, ‘a barely disguised hunger for a world in which minorities knew their place and stuck to it’. On the other other hand, there is the feeling sometimes that ‘in teaching us to see the politics in every text, Theory has left us unable to see anything but the politics in every text’. And so on. This is not some dutiful show of impartiality; Power seems genuinely undecided, conflicted even. As a critic of high integrity, he sets a cautious example.

Harry Cochrane
is a poet and critic from Northumberland. He lives and works in Florence, where he writes for local magazine ‘The Florentine’ and reviews for the Times Literary Supplement.

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