Saturday 27 August 2011

Snobbery about Writers

I was collecting some clichés about writers, and realised that a lot of them are about class. So here's What to Say About:

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES "LM Montgomery portrayed rural Prince Edward Island as a folksy paradise where good triumphs and endings are happy, but her own life was far from ideal." (The Green Gables saga has plenty of tragedy, rural life is shown as hard, rural poverty is not romanticized. Maybe the later books are more syrupy.)

BRIDESHEAD REVISITED It’s about flannelled toffs at Oxford. (It's about how aristocratic families damage and neglect their children.)

AGATHA CHRISTIE She was “ladylike”. Her characters are all cardboard cutouts, two-dimensional stereotypes. "The latest biography shows us a fully rounded character." Her greatest mystery was her life. She was a snob who only wrote about aristocrats in country houses. (She wrote about hairdressers holidaying at Le Touquet, and typists chasing spies in Baghdad - among other things.)

GEORGE ORWELL June 09 – a BBC memo has turned up wondering if his voice would do for radio. Cue blethering about how he was an Old Etonian, had a posh accent, didn’t have a posh accent, disguised his posh accent, spoke in Mockney, spoke in “Duke of Windsor cockney”, had a “colonial manner”. We know he went to Eton, served in the Burmese police, was shot in the throat in the Spanish Civil War, admitted to toning down his accent when living as a tramp, had TB and smoked heavily; no recording of his voice survives. (His prose is often condemned as plodding and flat-footed – perhaps because he published a list of instructions on how to write that warn against being flowery.)

JOHN BETJEMAN Old-fashioned, snobbish, obsessed with the upper classes and an England of cricket matches, tea and crumpets, warm beer. (He was a precise observer of class markers and would never sink to cliches about crumpets.) “John Betjeman's soppy idylls about honey on the vicarage lawn.” Stephen Bayley Obs Mar 2 08 A Subaltern’s Love Song is B’s “fantasy idyll”. "Light verse sells. Poetry doesn't have to be miserable, deeply intellectual, tortuously emotional, or clever. But more than that, he provided simple rhymes and rhythms. Betjeman is musical, and easy, and if you'd rather call it verse than poetry, that may say something about your own attitude to taste. When poetry disowns any of the properties of music, it must take care to offer something in its place. So if you want to sell a lot, Betjeman is a good model." (Guardian arts blog - you can rely on the socialist Guardian to be more snobbish than any other broadsheet.)

Easy metre? Simple rhymes? You try writing:
Pam, I adore you, Pam, you great big mountainous sports girl,

Whizzing them over the net, full of the strength of five:
That Old Malvernian brother, you zephyr and khaki shorts girl,

Although he's playing for Woking,

Can't stand up 
To your wonderful backhand drive.

"The image must have helped. He was one of the few poets whose face was known, because of his TV work; he looked like a teddy bear and sounded harmless and eccentric. In addition he was nothing like the stereotype of the drunk hell-raising poet... He seemed cosy; in many ways his poetry was cosy and unthreatening, though not always - he could be acute and painful on death and old age... And of course his poems were accessible, they didn't make people feel stupid and they yielded pleasure in return for very little work on the reader's part. We all like that sort of reading sometimes - maybe not Betjeman, because he's very English middle-class in a way that doesn't travel far outside those parameters, but we all have comfort reading we go back to when we don't specially want our brain stretching." (Guardian arts blog)

Betjeman epitomised everything that was wrong about postwar England - its nostalgia, conservatism, snobbery, provincialism... He is the poetic equivalent of a mediocre Devon cream tea in the rain. All the palaver about him strikes me as being a bunch of people congratulating themselves on being British and middle class. (Guardian arts blog)

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