An Interview with John Sutherland

The renowned literary commentator and professor talks to us about the machinery behind literature, ‘profitable idleness’, American TV and the future of books.

John Sutherland is Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College, London and a columnist for The Guardian. He is the editor of several novels by Anthony Trollope, William Makepeace Thackeray and other Victorian authors and in 2005 he chaired the Booker Prize committee. He has published criticism on contemporary bestsellers and reading culture as well as a bestselling series of literary puzzles, including Is Heathcliff A Murderer? The Literateur met him at UCL, the university with the oldest English department in the country.

Interviewed by Ling Low

TL: I’m intrigued by your work as a literary journalist. Your work tends towards the study of reading cultures, how people consume books and how they treat them. You’ve been referred to as a cultural critic. How do you feel about that?

JS: I decided quite early on that there were certain things I couldn’t do. I’m not a good critic; I don’t have a good ear for poetry. I’m very interested in the sociology of literature: what it is that makes literature happen. A lot of people think it’s just storks in the back of Waterstones bookshops – that books are just found like Victorian babies under gooseberry bushes. I don’t think it works like that – there is a kind of machinery behind literature as end product.

I got very interested in the machinery and I thought that was something I could engage with. I remember quite distinctly how it happened. I was in Edinburgh at the time, working on manuscripts, Thackeray manuscripts that were scattered all over the place because autograph hunters had valued them. I came across a bundle of contracts he’d made with the [publishing] house of Smith, and it occurred to me these contracts were shaping the novels that came out the other end.

Many would say Thackeray’s best novel is Henry Esmond – it’s a three volume novel whereas most of his other novels were serialised. But this novel was defined by the publisher, who wanted it for the library market, not the news-stand market. And you can see that the contract in fact shaped the product and the publisher, George Smith, also had a very strong input into the literary end product. I’m interested in that: what you could call the sociology of literature.

TL: As well as editing Victorian Fiction, you’ve written books about contemporary bestsellers. It seems to me that there isn’t a big disparity between these interests, since the Victorian fiction market was very commercially driven. Novels now canonised as classics were bestsellers of their time.

JS: I suppose my interest in Victorian fiction, like a lot of people of my generation, was something imbibed in mother’s milk in the sense that the first books I read at school were Victorian novels. I can distinctly remember my first reading of Harrison Ainsworth. I was born in 1939 which means if you do the sums I was quite close to Victorian England. One didn’t need a time machine to go back there, it was around you. And also there was the shortage of new books so one was driven to old books.

So my interest in Victorian novels is almost inherited – but it has always been non-canonical. My estimate is there are about 70 – 80,000 works which one could bring under the definition of ‘Victorian Fiction’. But if you look at what is called Victorian fiction on the average curriculum, it’s usually four or five novels, and short novels at that. Silas Marner, Hard Times, perhaps Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights. These are unusual for Victorian novels because they’re very good and most Victorian novels weren’t very good. But nonetheless you have to understand the bad to understand the good. These novels don’t emerge from nowhere: they grow from a sub-soil, and that sub-soil is ordinary or even plain bad fiction.

I believe, like the Russian Formalists, that the energies of literature are volcanic: they come from below. They don’t trickle down from Henry James.

TL: I understand that while researching The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, you read some 5000 novels.

JS: There was a moment, in the early nineties, when I thought that I understood what the Victorian novel was. It doesn’t last, but it’s a wonderful feeling. But it takes time. It takes not just time, but unharrassed time. And one of the things that has happened in universities is partly that the driving forces are all outside universities, the inspectorial regimes. These are people on the outside telling people on the inside what to do. That never used to be the case.

The image used to be that of a high wall and the government came with a sack of gold, and they threw the gold over the wall, and you could do what you liked with it. But that’s no longer the case. Now they want “accountability”. It seems to me that accountability kills initiative. It also kills that profitable idleness which is necessary for English studies – although you can’t make a case for it. You can’t make a case for a department in which people just do bugger-all except become learned, keep up with their colleagues, create a kind of ambience. That is no longer possible. It may come back – but that wonderful idleness, leisure which the study of literature needs – that’s a change. It’s probably immutable.

TL: We’ve recently heard of humanities funding cuts at universities in England, and UCL is among several London universities affected. Are you worried about the survival of English Literature as a discipline?

JS: One of the few compensations of having been around for a long time is that you can see fairly large rhythms and movements in your discipline. What one can call literary criticism or the study of literature in higher education has shifted quite a lot in the last forty or fifty years. When I came into it in the sixties, it was still the case that a war had been fought quite recently for ideological and cultural motives – against totalitarianism, for liberalism.

A lot of people felt that literature enshrined many of the things that one had fought and died for. As a result of which English studies was really central, in a way which would I think be quite unfamiliar to anyone coming into the profession today. In the 1960s and 70s, the Provost of UCL, Noel Annan, one of the lineal descendents of Bloomsbury, stated very confidently that the heart of the UCL enterprise was English studies.

No Provost since then, no one in a position of authority in a university state apparatus would say that. Mandelson has come out recently, very strongly, with the opinion that the humanities spectrum, including History, Philosophy and English, is to some extent periphery – icing on the cake – and what you really need is technology and science. One does feel peripheral now.

TL: Picking up on this idea of profitable idleness, I notice that you’ve written various books of literary puzzles, such as Is Heathcliff a Murderer? and Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? I suppose I deduce from this that you expect people to read repetitively, obsessively, but also to read for narrative pleasure. Is that part of profitable idleness as well?

JS: Very much so. I’ve done seven of these books – I’d have done seventy but the publishers indicated that the vein was running a bit dry after the seventh! They grew out of the fact I’ve edited a lot of fiction. It seems to me editing is like marriage: you get to know a person very well if you sleep with them. One of the things I did when I was annotating was to put in questions I couldn’t answer. Readers would usually write back to me, and say ‘well if you look at chapter…’

There is a huge community of people out there who read very carefully – and not only that, they read very literally. They read fiction not as the theorists see it, as a semiotic sign system, but as if it was real. And so I got very interested in these questions. Why is it, for instance, that Heathcliff has good teeth? Does Heathcliff actually kill Hindley? Very often it’s just errors on the author’s part, but it’s very interesting.

For instance, the first experiment that the invisible man performs in HG Wells’ novel is to turn a piece of white cotton invisible. But later on it turns out he’s got to walk through Oxford Street naked, being jostled by all the people, because he can’t make himself an invisible suit. Now why is that? These kinds of questions, questions which are really kind of ludicrous.

It was a gamesome thing, but it was also very communal. One of the worst things about being a PhD is that it’s like being Scott of the bloody Antarctic. You look around and you’re there all by yourself, you know more about this subject than anybody. It’s the wilderness of higher scholarship. And yet there is a community of people out there. They’re reading this stuff, and reading with hawk-eyed attention. So these puzzle books are attempts to hook in to that, to get away from the loneliness of scholarship and to have some kind of dialogue. If you do journalism, what you discover is that there’s always someone out there reading the paper that knows more than you do. It’s a very corrective and important thing to discover.

TL: I suppose another example of this culture can be found on TV, with people picking over the mysteries in a series like Lost.

JS: I think the most interesting things happening in narrative right now are on American TV. I’m thinking of things like Big Love, about a recusant Mormon family. Or Breaking Bad which is wonderful, about a chemistry teacher who makes Methamphetamine because he’s dying of lung cancer and gets himself in terrible difficulties. Or Damages, which is extraordinarily adventurous in its narrative in terms of cross-cutting and jumps.

I suppose that a lot of these things skin off from The Sopranos, or Dexter, which has done something quite unique – it has rediscovered creative ways of using voiceover. A lot of Dexter is soliloquy, of a rather amiable serial killer. In The Wire they seem to have re-discovered the art of Victorian serialisation. If you read a novel like Vanity Fair or Dombey and Son in the 1840s, it was a two-year experience. With The Wire, you have that same kind of long engagement with a narrative – a sense of going somewhere.

TL: I wanted to ask you about offence. In your book Magic Moments you write that offence is an important quality, “worth retaining”. Do you feel that people are now desensitised to horror in both visual media and in literature?

JS: Years ago now I wrote a book about de-censorship. In November 1960 Lady Chatterley’s Lover was acquitted at the Old Bailey and that changed the whole literary landscape. Martin Amis could write things that Kingsley Amis would have been prosecuted for. People became more thick-skinned.

In the fifties, our sensibilities were raw – 80% of the population had lived through the Second World War and seen terrible films of the concentration camps. We were much more sensitive. And sensitivity is, it seems to me, really very valuable in literature. George Eliot said that the function of the novel is to extend sympathy. To make you feel other people’s pain, or to make you capable of feeling other people’s pain. One didn’t just want to just weep over the fact that Dorothea Brooke is unhappy: one wanted to appreciate that, as Eliot put it, human beings have equivalent centres of self. “Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.”

It seems to me that in certainly some areas now there is a terrific callousness – literally unfeelingness. American Psycho is a great book, but the first version which Bret Easton Ellis sold to Simon and Schuster was found to be so offensive, particularly in its violence against women, that a woman editor leaked the proofs and there was enough protest for the publishers to withdraw.

The book was eventually brought out in a modified form by Random House. Even so, pretty hard stuff. When one compares that, or any of the Saw movies for instance, with the kind of censorship willingly accepted in the forties and fifties, one can look at the terrific furore over what now seems like a very innocent adaptation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in 1954: questions were asked in the House, one poor citizen apparently even died of a heart-attack watching the final scene in Room 101!

So there has been a loss of sensitivity, which goes against the grain of what one likes to think literature does. Literature doesn’t make you a better person: that’s a myth. It doesn’t necessarily make you a happy person. But you could argue that it does refine your feelings. It is what Flaubert calls a “sentimental education.”

TL: Ian McEwan wrote an article after 9/11 in which he said that the ability to imagine ourselves as other people is the core of humanity. He argued that the terrorists’ crimes included a lack of imagination, an inability to empathise.

Interestingly, it was a novelist, Vernon Lee, who invented the word ‘empathy’, in the nineteenth century. You can see why, it’s a natural concomitant of fiction. When Ian McEwan complains that the tragedy of 9/11 was in some way a narcissistic act – narcissism being so engrossed yourself that you don’t realise other people exist – I think he’s right.

McEwan is an interesting case. I think he’s a great novelist but he arouses horrific antipathy. In February 2009, readers of The Guardian were asked [to nominate] the worst novel of the decade. And the remarks about McEwan were the verbal equivalent of grievous bodily harm.

TL: Was this for On Chesil Beach?

JS: On Chesil Beach, Atonement, all of them, but principally for Saturday. The language was vile – there were 893 responses, and not one was in favour of McEwan. A number of people said they thought there was a conspiracy in the London literary world to promote certain writers and there was a kind of revolutionary feeling there.

Cultural revolutions are often accompanied by a kind of technological breakthrough. The French Revolution was partly made possible because of the printing press. In the 1960s the paperback revolution was incredibly influential. And now we’ve got the internet, which has released a huge vox populi and that vox populi is certainly not subservient to what you’d call the cultural elite. Poor McEwan is regarded, I think, as a creature of that elite. Very interesting things are happening to the relationship between literature and the reading public. It’s liberation, but like all forms of liberation it’s rather terrifying.

TL: I think it’s somewhat comforting that people are raising so much protest, because it does mean that people are reading books and have strong feelings about them. But do you think that reading has declined as an important activity in people’s lives?

JS: Books have been very influential for me. But I don’t think that they would have had the same impact on the personality of someone born in the nineties. I’m not sure books are a major force now in terms of maturing a person. I didn’t travel abroad until I was seventeen, so books were a kind of passport, taking me to interesting places.

But reading is probably still in as good a shape as it was – it’s just that people have wider choice and much less time. 150,000 titles were published last year in the UK, and 60% of those will go to the pulping mill unread. In the post-war period, in the forties and fifties, it was hard to get access to books but now there is a surplus, and it is expanding exponentially with new media.

With the Google library project, you have in your hand 15 million titles, and half of them will be free. But when will you read them? How are people going to fit it in? And competing media are more attractive to young readers. There’s really something very sterile about looking at tiny black marks on a white surface and creating a world out of them. It’s very wonderful and a great human trick, but books will have to fight hard to survive.

The e-book will be interesting – people see it now as a transcription device, a vehicle. But it would be possible to have sound – to have soundtracks, the author’s voice, and all sorts of fluidities which a printed book doesn’t allow. Look at what mobile phones were ten years ago and what the iPhone is now – you realise how fast technological change can happen. In the future, the e-book could incorporate many new features that might bring about a revival of reading.

TL: I think the future is an excellent place to finish. John Sutherland, thank you very much.

JS: Thank you.

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