Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives by John Sutherland – review

Sutherland's survey of writers in English is partial, personal and highly entertaining

As an academic and newspaper critic, Sutherland has described himself as a "literary sociologist"; he is tempted to judge the man (or woman) as much as the work and this predilection is what makes his compendious survey of fiction in English so warmly readable.

He approaches the 294 novelists he essays with the eye of a magazine profile writer as well as the judgment of an emeritus professor, always on the lookout for the telling biographical detail that might explain the books, and with a nose for Grub Street gossip. Each writer, from John Bunyan to Jeffrey Archer, is afforded three or four pages of attention; the best of the pieces, and there are plenty, are both satisfyingly acute and nicely rounded, like the most waspish of obituaries.

There is in all such all-inclusive efforts an element of showing off – is there any writer in the language Sutherland doesn't have definitive opinions about? – but he gets away with it in a tone that sides always with the curious reader against the edifice of professional lit crit.

There is nothing wrong, in this book, with wanting to know if Jane Austen died a virgin, and hunting for repressed double entendres in Pride and Prejudice, just as it is fine to own up to an admiration for Catherine Cookson or Michael Crichton, as well as James Joyce or Donald Barthelme. And rightly, given its scope, Sutherland makes no apology for leaving stuff out (the entire western canon not written in English, for example – Tolstoy, Flaubert and Mann get hardly a look in).

The author's own not so guilty pleasures are everywhere apparent. Sutherland is a sucker for crime fiction and doesn't care who knows it. Elmore Leonard, whose 10 rules for writing have been widely tweeted in the month since his death, is introduced, for example, as "the greatest American novelist never to be mentioned in the same breath as 'Nobel prize'". Leonard, you guess, would have enjoyed Sutherland's book, which is to literary biography something like his novels were to literary fiction. That is to say Sutherland "leaves out the parts that readers tend to skip" and is rarely seduced by "hooptedoodle".


Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

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