Bluff Your Way in Literature

Found in a cupboard at Jot HQ is this very slim (66 pages), pocket sized guide on how to ‘ get on ‘ in the literary world by surely the one man qualified to help you. By 1966, when the booklet appeared from Wolfe Publishing, who had hitherto brought out other bluffer’s guides to Finance, Music and Marketing,  Martin, Seymour- Smith was already the best-known and most industrious compiler of literary reference works in Britain. But unlike many literary critics he came to this point in a meandering way. Having started auspiciously as the undergraduate editor of both Oxford University’s Isis Magazine and Oxford Poetry, he subsequently sailed off to Majorca to tutor the son of Robert Graves, then spent six years as a schoolmaster in Sussex, and it was only from 1960 that he was able to support himself as a freelance writer.

His poetry had already impressed many critics, including C. H .Sisson and Geoffrey Grigson. Robert Nye dubbed him ‘the best British poet after 1945’, but to most readers of novels, he was , with a reading knowledge of twenty languages, simply the most wide-ranging critic of world fiction in the UK. Like Grigson, he was not afraid to court notoriety by his outspoken views on certain modish writers. For instance, he criticized the work of John Fowles, Muriel Spark, C. P.Snow, Malcolm Bradbury and Ted Hughes. He also felt that Shaw, Pinter, Attwood, Auden and Tom Stoppard were over-rated. On the other hand he argued that Hardy, Laura Riding, Wyndham Lewis and Rayner Heppenstall were severely underrated. Even more controversially, he called Wyndham Lewis ‘ the greatest British writer of the twentieth century ‘.

Grigson felt the same about the lack of attention given to Lewis by fashionable critics. In many ways the two critics shared certain traits: Seymour-Smith described himself as ‘ tense, malarial, angry as a bull when roused, ugly, clownish…and a compulsive talker’. Like Grigson, he kept himself away from the literary establishment, ‘mistrusting its machinations and self-importance’.  According to the reviewer of Seymour-Smith’s Who’s Who in Twentieth Century Literature, he ‘wasn’t for everyone’. He could be over harsh and mean spirited. His many ‘put downs and undercooked psychoanalysis’ might alienate some readers. However, he compensated for some hilariously biased judgments by his willingness to challenge received wisdom and established reputations. Such a book, the reviewer concluded ‘would be impossible to write today’. Times change. In the current  literary world, where diversity and Wokeness count for more than talent and originality, we perhaps could do with someone like Seymour –Smith to kick over the ant-hill.

All Seymour-Smith’s  prejudices, mischief-making  and sceptisism are blatantly conveyed in Bluff Your Way in Literature, and the book is better for it. Using irony he takes the opportunity to settle a few scores by taking aim at certain fashionable writers by devoting whole mini-chapters to them. For instance, John Wain, a contemporary of Kingsley Amis, but now largely forgotten, is singled out for sly jibes, as are the ‘ubiquitous ‘Robin Skelton and the ‘talented ‘ Robert Lowell. The latter is described as ‘the current God of modern English poetry and must not on any account be denigrated ‘. He advises bluffers to ‘praise the allusions to mental illness, hospitals and tranquillizers as “ new”, “ contemporary “, and again, “major “. Seymour-Smith then wheels in Al Alvarez as someone who praised Lowell and whose judgement no bluffer should question. Elsewhere there are also jibes at the ‘ knighted anarchic theorist Herbert Read’ and the ‘ with-it-critic-poet-don Donald Davie’ .  Interestingly, Grigson was also critical of Lowell, Alvarez and Davie , though in a much more combative way.

Other fashionable concerns of the 1960s are broached.  Seymour-Smith seems generally in favour of the ‘Movement’ poets, and particularly of Larkin, whose Whitsun Weddings had just appeared. The notion of ‘phallic symbolism‘in literature, which was a hot topic in the ‘swinging sixties, ‘he sees as ‘ boring and neurotic ‘ and best avoided. The fashionable ‘left-wing politics ‘ of the time is recommended for all bluffers. ‘ Do not be right-wing at all’ is his advice. The subject of ‘ pop music ‘, as it was then called ( ‘rock’ only seems to have been used from the seventies onwards) comes up in the course of ‘ highbrow conversation’, according to Seymour-Smith, who is perhaps thinking of Wilfred Mellers. Bluffers belonging to an older generation must, he says, never deny its ‘ significance’. As for jazz, it is the subject of a ‘ genuine mystique and you must subscribe to this however much it bores you to do so. The top- notes of certain performers represent , to many highbrows, the answer to human existence and contain the meaning of the universe. Any reference to the jazz mystique in a poem or novel automatically confers importance  upon the work in question and means that it is contemporary and therefore good’. A reference to Larkin, no doubt.

Most of the above issues can be seen as old hat today. We are now more concerned with censorship, identity politics and the environment. However, in 1966, just 21 years after the defeat of Fascism, racism and anti-semitism were as topical as they are today. Seymour-Smith, like any liberal thinker, was firmly against ‘ this sickness’. The literary world , he claims ‘ is decent about such things and not even the worst kind of fake will forgive you for taking him aside and telling him that International Jewry or Black Africa is behind the troubles of the world.’ Nevertheless, without naming the culprit, he concedes that a devotee of Hitler who writes not very well known novels, claims himself to be a Jew. This could not have been Celine, as he had died in 1961. Then Seymour –Smith identifies another racist without naming him, possibly for fear of litigation: ‘One well-known ‘poet’ is known to enjoy dressing up as a fascist (even in public) , and writes about cruelty and suffering with obvious although pathetically effective relish; but this is rightly regarded as merely eccentric and unimportant : his ‘friends’ say tolerantly, ‘ I love — ,he is so evil’. Perhaps readers in the Jottosphere know who this is. Obviously, this isn’t Ezra Pound, but who is it? We cannot begin to guess. [R. M. Healey]

2 thoughts on “Bluff Your Way in Literature

  1. Angus ("not Philip")

    Thanks for drawing attention to this entertaining series, which was in general much better informed (and more sharply written) than a casual passer-by might have expected. Coincidentally, today’s annual ODNB update (2019 deaths) includes a piece on Peter Gammond, who contributed some of the music-related titles in a broadly similar vein. Perhaps more jots could be written?

  2. Nigel

    Many thanks Angus, you are right it was an intelligent series and even useful for the determined bluffer.. I will ask Robin, the greater maker of these posts,
    to maybe do some more on the bluff series. Nigel


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