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Value follows intention. There is no greater mark of the gap that separates writers and English departments than the question of value.


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The very thing that most matters to writers, the first question they ask of a work — is it any good? To the academy, much of this value-chat looks like, and can indeed be, mere impressionism. Again, theory is not the only culprit. But conventional, non-theoretical criticism often acts as if questions of value are irrelevant, or canonically settled. Who bothers, while teaching The Portrait of a Lady for the nth time, to explain to a class that it is a beautiful book?

But it would be a pardonable exaggeration to say that, for most writers, greedy to learn and emulate, this is the only important question. It is a purely academic account of hundreds of literary forms created almost entirely by non-academics.

In more than six hundred pages, it is hard to detect the author, who teaches at Edinburgh University, making a single evaluative judgment. This evaluative reticence is not timidity, however. He does have likes and dislikes, and they emerge steadily. This is why he likes J.

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He has opinions about artworks; but they are never aesthetic ones. He rarely treats poems and novels as if they have any aesthetic autonomy, as if they might be charged formal spaces within which a high degree of intentionality and detail superbly exist. Instead, he is an epigraphist, content to read works for their historical content.

Insofar as form and language detain him, they detain him as questions of ideology. Drama, being more openly political than either fiction or poetry, is more progressive. Family conflict was also used by these authors, and others in the period, to highlight differences between provincial life and the metropolis.


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  • A separate chapter on fiction by women is egregious in this regard. Developments in feminism are simply read off relevant works.

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    A Dance to the Music of Time , for instance, is read alongside C. Especially as they accelerated after the war, these disintegral processes provided the principal interest of A Dance to the Music of Time. It was metafictional only in the way that reality TV is metatelevisual. When Ian McEwan moved on from short-story writing, it was to produce a first "novel", The Cement Garden , not much in excess of one hundred pages.

    He goes first to economics, and then to literature, not the other way round. It is, in fact, a disaster to fill a book like this with storms of names and endless lists; narrative gets shouted down by the encyclopedic. But there are many valuable discussions: Stevenson shows that much postwar fiction was shadowed by the war, and particularly by the Holocaust. Entitled The last of England? Referring of course to the most recent literary production from England, it also interrogates the regularly announced demise of England.

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    And yet It unavoidably sometimes proves difficult to respect self-imposed spatial and temporal limitations, as R. Because one cannot examine a period in literature independently from what came before, this book repeatedly goes beyond the selected dates.


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    • In order to explain postmodernism in literature, the author reminds the reader of what it came after. He thus spends a significant number of pages on modernism exemplified by Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Lawrence, a period he knows particularly well — see his Modernist Fiction ; rev.

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      The rise of academic literary study has meant not the end of the common reader but a bigger reading public than ever before. Yet Stevenson is no Panglossian optimist: he has reservations about these luminaries and no illusions about the faddishness into which fiction has fallen since its escape from the stuffy elitism of old. Altogether, this is an extraordinary book, both in its learning and its easy-going accessibility: an authoritative, yet truly companionable companion to modern English literature.

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