A Little History of Literature

By John Sutherland

“Literature” is a subject that can be hard to pin down. Broadly, it might include any structure of words, including a grocery list. Or, as the distinguished and prolific literary critic John Sutherland has it in this new primer, it might refer a bit vaguely to productions of “the human mind at the very height of its ability to express and interpret the world around us.”

Sutherland’s formulation leaves plenty of room for disagreement about what exactly makes the cut. But, however we choose to define literature, one thing we can all agree on is that there is a lot of it, and more arriving every day. Twenty-first century readers are living in a golden age of abundance, with more of all the best that has been thought and said available, in English translation, than ever before. So how do you give structure to a brief overview of such a subject, and advise and engage the common reader?

The approach taken in A Little History of Literature (the title and design of the book were inspired by E. H. Gombrich’s classic A Little History of the World) is mainly chronological, taking us on a very quick tour of the major genres and modes of world literature, with a heavy emphasis on British and American writing (the only Canadian author mentioned is Margaret Atwood, who is curiously identified as an academic). Individual books and authors are introduced as representative of particular periods and forms.

The authors selected stand atop the commanding heights in the story of literature. Given the kind of book this is, Sutherland can’t say very much about any one of them, but he’s sure they’re great. “Great” is a word he uses a lot. Shakespeare is “indubitably” “the greatest writer of the English-speaking world,” Samuel Johnson “the greatest Shakespearian critic we have,” and Laurence Olivier “the greatest Shakespearian actor of his time.” Charles Dickens “is the greatest ever novelist,” and W. B. Yeats is “by general agreement the greatest Irish poet.” Even Keats’s “Hyperion” is heralded as “one of the greatest narrative poems in the English language.” When great loses its value, it adds octane with “supreme.” Thus Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde are two supremely great poems.” The novels of Jane Austen, however, are only “supremely good,” though it’s unclear if Sutherland means anything different by this.

Superlatives aside, Sutherland’s organization of the material is excellent, judiciously mixing chapters on related subjects such as copyright, censorship, colonialism, race, and gender in with the historical flow. Clearly there are few literary matters that he doesn’t have an opinion on, and those opinions are expressed in an accessible, informal way.

But while the chatty style is well suited to such a non-academic volume, it also papers over some jarring lapses. Being glib can get even the cleverest people in trouble.

For example: Gilgamesh is not set in what was “then called Mesopotamia” (it wasn’t called Mesopotamia until much later). It is not true that “none of the poets of the time seemed to have registered the existence of” William Blake. We know Coleridge read him. The theme that “children’s experiences shape them for life” is not really addressed in Lord of the Flies or We Need to Talk About Kevin. Not “every” James Bond movie has a happy ending (two that don’t are On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the second Casino Royale). And Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward is by no stretch of the imagination an example of a nostalgic, anti-industrial “back-to-simplicity utopia.” Sutherland is so wildly off here that one wonders if he has read, or remembers reading, the book.

Except for the last, these aren’t glaring errors, but they’re the sort of slips that someone should have caught.

“Time spent reading literature is always time well spent,” Sutherland declares. But how to most profitably spend that time? While he did not want this to be a manual of what to read (that’s another book he’s written that will be published next year), Sutherland does offer up an “intelligent sample” of major authors and works that have stood the test of time, and helpfully sets them in context. Meanwhile, the history of literature is still being written, and greatness calls.

Review first published in the Toronto Star, January 24 2014.

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