- Post-War British Women Novelists and the Canon
I opened Nick Turner's Post-War British Women Novelists and the Canon with eager anticipation. Not only does the title announce a subject matter close to my own heart, but the book's attempt to interrogate why some writers remain undervalued provides, it seems to me, a highly pertinent and much needed assessment of a literary problem. Turner's introduction ends: "The novel is alive and well, and is still the bright book of life; some of its purveyors have been forced into the shade, however, and this book, as well as asking why, hopes to bring them into the light: the 'brilliant women' novelists of our age" (10). This sentence captures both the strengths and problems of the book. Here, the enthusiasm and passion of the author's [End Page 420] main concern is clear, as is the book's scope, but the prose aims at a rhetorical tenor and level of persuasion it does not quite reach.
The book opens with engaging questions that are culturally and theoretically important. Turner interrogates the choices and value-judgements behind decisions about literary merit, with a particular focus on the question of why and how literary prizes are decided. As he soon points out, which writers win (and are subsequently widely read) is too often determined by commercial markets, academic curricula, the influence of literary fashion, and the cult of celebrity. These thoughts are persuasively developed in "Theories of the Canon," which charts and interrogates ideas from the first literary application of the term in 1885 to more recent scholarship interrogating the scope and veracity of various later concepts of the canon(s). The extent of the discussion here is necessarily broad and the net of theoretical reading cast wide. One key—and for Turner, false—division has been in terms of separating out so called high and low, or popular and literary, canons. In response, the evidence given here deliberately treads ground between the popular and academic to consider what factors contribute to a book/author's survival. But while the resulting discussion of markets, MLA ratings, and an appendix charting Google ratings provides current statistical evidence, it is not always clear what such information tells us.
Further, as I suggested above, the tension between popular and literary fiction is not only played out by the method of this book, it also presents its main problem. Turner treads a difficult line in terms of tone and persuasion: he neither wants to be too dry and academic, nor too casual and popular. One result, as both citation and blurb on the back of the book rightly identify, is that the prose is straightforward, clear, and readable. Further, as the author himself points out: "I have used deliberately evaluate language. . . . I believe strongly that this kind of evaluation is lacking in much contemporary criticism" (5). "What is needed," he later claims, "is an honest acknowledgement of the truth in Kermode's belief in literary pleasure" so as to stop texts from "disappearing behind critical discourses" (60). However, the problem with this move away from critical discourse in favor of a supposedly more honest writing is that it can result in overly self-conscious prose. There is too much signposting of the "I have moved beyond matters of comedy and style here, to pinpoint . . ." kind (60).
After providing its overview of the theories of the canon, the book moves to four case studies: Iris Murdoch, Anita Brookner, Ruth Rendell and Emma Tennant. As Turner admits, here he is "creating a personal canon, as open to debate as any other list" (8). This overt admission of personality is again given for the admirable reasons of clarity and honesty. Unfortunately, it also, to some extent, undermines [End Page 421] the reader's sense of the wider validity of the choices made. But what of the case studies themselves? The first, Iris Murdoch, provides a useful bridge between the broader first chapter and the move to a case study format. Turner makes the argument that Murdoch is...