Seamus Perry

James’s Bible

The Fun Stuff and Other Essays

By

Jonathan Cape 344pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

At one point in his untrustworthy recollections Kenneth Toomey, the narrator of Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, cattily refers to T S Eliot’s habit of collecting up old book reviews and calling them Selected Essays. It is a deliciously wrong-headed remark, as Burgess, a clever and funny critic who collected his own reviews assiduously enough, knew perfectly well. Burgess called his own diverting ragbag of gathered pieces Homage to QWERT YUIOP, which makes disarming reference to the top line of letters on the typewriter keyboard on which he had bashed out all those notices for money. But a judicious collection of such pieces can be much more than the sum of its parts. Eliot’s Selected Essays, to take Toomey’s example (or even better Eliot’s earlier book The Sacred Wood), shows how the contingent productions of a jobbing life can be organised into a coherent and satisfying order, the essays connecting to one another by preoccupation, echo and contradiction, and creating new sorts of meaning through their well-pondered juxtapositions. Publishers won’t normally touch a collection of articles these days, no doubt with good reason, but it is striking to reflect how different the history of modern literature would have been had they always taken that line. Anyway, some of my own favourite books of criticism have had their origin this way: W W Robson’s marvellous Critical Essays, say, or Barbara Everett’s perpetually suggestive Poets in Their Time.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • The entertaining Howard Jacobson is in conversation with Prof John Mullan at the Queen’s Park Book Festival on Sund… ,
    • 'A modest and retiring man, Thompson spent his life describing apple varieties and recommending the best – Ribston… ,
    • 'Macfarlane is a poet with the instincts of a thriller writer, an autodidact in botany, mycology, geology and palae… ,
    • 'Some scholars attribute Shakespeare’s pre-eminence to four centuries of propaganda and not to the fact that Hamlet… ,
    • RT : We would appreciate any retweets ,
    • We've just stumbled on a gem from the LR archive. The emoluments page from May 1995, in which one reviewer asked to… ,
    • Unlike Mary Shelley's monstrous creation, Jeanette Winterson's Frankenstein-inspired novel feels 'barely alive', sa… ,