I picked up this book by Colin Wilson in the College Library.  It is a fascinating read.  Well-written, immensely knowledgeable (at times almost suspiciously so – how can anyone have really read that much?) and strongly opinionated.  Amusingly, Wilson pretty much condemns all the great novels and their producers as failures, for one reason or another, although he doesn’t ignore their strengths or importance.

While it is true that there is a little too much negativity, although that is one of the traits that Wilson means to target in his own critiques, there is something very refreshing about an author that is prepared to square up against the unassailable giants of literature and point out faults that many of us would secretly agree with if we didn’t want to be dismissed as ignorant buffoons.  Mind you, I had to hold myself back as he slagged off Beckett, dismissed Pynchon as ‘experimental only in form, not content’ and belittled Hesse.  Despite this, I have to say that I find many of his judgements to be fair, and most are at least partially justifiable.

The biggest problem with the book, though, is the lack of women writers.   Had Wilson bothered to include a few more females he might have gone a long way to solving his problems with the modern (for him male) novel.  It is even arguable, though possibly he never realised it, that the root of his dissatisfaction with the novel’s prospects in the 20th century is the very maleness of his choices.  Or maybe not.  The criticisms that Wilson levels at the ‘serious’ male writers might equally be marshalled against many canonical women writers too.

Perhaps the best thing about the book is that it takes fantasy seriously, rating the Lord of The Rings as one of the finest novels of the last 100 years and David Lindsay as one of the greatest writers.  Indeed, Wilson implies that such critically marginalised forms of the novel have stayed closest to the things he sees as its true purposes, among which are to reflect the writer’s fundamental self-image and to outline what it is that they truly want.  Wilson also emphasises the transformative power of the novel and its ability to allow the writer (and reader) to transcend the ‘robot’ self that exists within the everyday and see outside the box – using what he calls ‘wide-angle’ vision.

Still, even sticking to male authors as Wilson does, he missed a trick not mentioning Flann O’Brien, Mikhail Bulgakov, Olaf Stapledon and Karl May.  Oh, and Jack Vance of course.

There’s a good, somewhat bemused, review of this book by Olly Buxton on Amazon which is a bit more dismissive than I would be of it, although I agree with a lot of his points.  In spite of Wilson’s sweeping condemnations and sometimes pompous tones I found a lot to smile at and to think about.  A surprising and enjoyable find, although it’s not much help in terms of creative writing advice, which is the reason I picked it up in the first place…

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