Monday, February 22, 2010

Readings — First Folio

First Folio: A Little Book of Folio Forewards

No editor is listed for this volume, which is a collection of forewards written by various authors for books reprinted by the Folio Society. Catherine Taylor introduces the book, which seems an engagingly post-modern exercise, being an introduction to a series of introductions. The whole project recalls Alasdair Gray’s The Book of Prefaces, though it doesn’t have the high ambitions.

The value for me lies in the quality of the writers whose prefaces are being reprinted. Those include Iain Sinclair (examining the geography of The War of the Worlds), PeterAckroyd (reconstructing the life of Dickens to shed light on Oliver Twist), and A.S. Byatt (considering the nature of fairy tales in reflecting on Andrew Lang’s Pink Fairy Book). Many others of these brief essays are intriguing, such as Fergal Keane’s appreciation of David Thomson’s Woodbrook, or delightfully unexpected, such as Philip Pullman’s celebration of The Anatomy of Melancholy.

Really, only John Sutherland’s piece on Slaughterhouse-Five is actively poor — Sutherland’s an example of the sort of Vonnegut critic one hears of, who feels the need to absolve Vonnegut of the sin of having committed science fiction, himself knowing nothing about the genre. Particularly egregious, and frankly unjust, is Sutherland’s describing Vonnegut’s character of SF writer Kilgore Trout as “that archetypal SF writer who, like others of his craft, has great ideas but can’t write worth a damn”; leave aside the description of SF as a craft and not an art, leave aside the fact that (for better or worse) many SF writers were focussing on ideas and not prose style, and consider that Sutherland follows this statement with a note in which he says: “It is assumed that Kilgore Trout ... was based on the actual writer Theodore Sturgeon.” Now, I’m not the world’s biggest Sturgeon fan, but to say, even by implication, that Sturgeon “can’t write worth a damn” is simply wrong on the face of it. Granted that Vonnegut’s acknowledged the connection; but the point is that here Sutherland is calling Sturgeon, a conscious literary artist, a hack. It’s the sort of whopping error that doesn’t just leave the critic looking foolish, but calls into question his reliability as a whole.

(For the curious, Vonnegut himself sums up science fiction, and his relationship thereto, in this only mildly outdated essay.)

Thankfully, this sort of thing is not otherwise present in the book. And there is a lot that’s intriguing, such as Roy Foster’s dicussion of Yeats’ collected poems, or Richard Holmes brooding on his own life and Robert Louis Stevenson’s travel writing. So while there may be no outright revelatory re-imaginings of the experience of a classic text, there is a lot of illumination of lives and times, and much careful thought. Which is what makes a useful foreword.

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