Megan Williams
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Sep, 12

A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland

Inspired by Ernst Gombrich’s A Little History of the World , which was written for a friend’s daughter in 1935, but became a surprise bestseller on its republication in 2005, Yale’s Little Histories imprint sets out to provide “vivid storybook introductions for the young and old alike” to the monolithic abstracts of human culture.

With philosophy, language and science already in the bag, the focus now turns to literature, and though few of us might fancy the task of squeezing 4,000 years of writing from Gilgamesh to Twilight into 300 pages, not much is beyond the industry of John Sutherland, teacher, critic, editor, biographer, newspaper columnist and hackademic par excellence.

Sutherland, by his own admission, has “made the study of literature my profession for more years than I would care to remember”, but he has also made a substantial name for himself as a populariser. A string of publications beginning with Is Heathcliff a Murderer? (1996) specialised in probing classic literature for mysterious lacunae, and a stream of primers and bluffers’ guides — How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide , Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction , How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts and so on — has made him a desirable property in the endless market of books about books. Sutherland has edited Trollope and Thackeray, written a biography of Stephen Spender, headed the Booker committee, taught at UCL. He knows his stuff.

His Little History of Literature, however, is aimed at people who don’t. Genial and cheerful though it is, this is entry-level material, perfect for bright teenagers thinking of studying English at university or adults seeking to fill in large gaps in their knowledge, but not sufficiently comprehensive to be a proper work of reference.

As any account of this length must, Sutherland’s history cleaves strongly to its author’s literary preferences. Despite brief chapters on race and gender in writing, there’s a great deal here of what used to be known as “the canon” — the body of mostly English literature that starts with Chaucer and runs up to the Modernists — and coverage of foreign writers, apart from the Americans, is patchy at best. That’s not to say that he is a stuffy critic: his book finds room, among other things, for Oprah’s Book Club, Stephenie Meyer, Fifty Shades and a spirited disquisition on the dodgy subtitles on Scandinavian crime television. But his tastes are broadly traditionalist.

Histories of something as nebulous as literature are evident candidates for readerly whataboutery, but some of the omissions still seem downright odd. Dickens gets a whole chapter on why he’s “the greatest ever novelist”; Middlemarch gets a sentence. Milton’s Paradise Lost gets an entire section; Dante gets mentioned briefly in a discussion of T.S. Eliot. There’s a chapter on Thomas Hardy entitled “The Great Pessimist”, but no mention at all of his wrist-slittingly glum contemporary A.E. Housman. We get the Greek tragedians but not the Latin poets; Homer but not the Edda; Boccaccio but not Malory or the French romances. A strangely occluded picture emerges.

Not all his information is wholly reliable. Oedipus Rex (Latin) isn’t the right title for Sophocles’ (Greek) play. Eliot’s “Unreal City” is not a direct lift from Baudelaire. This kind of thing probably doesn’t matter at the level for which Sutherland is writing here, but other lapses nag more. Praising graphic novels, he links the popularity of Guy Fawkes masks among the Occupy and Anonymous groups to Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta (1988) rather than the film adaptation by the Matrix directors in 2005. No doubt these are just slips, but they’re disheartening. So are the descents of his mostly excellent style into book-column cliché: literature “makes us more human”; Britain is “now the most multicultural literary world anywhere on the planet”; Chaucer is “the best place to start your journey of discovery into the wonderful world of fiction” and so on.

It’s a shame, because when Sutherland is on form he’s excellent. His chapter on Austen is a brilliant piece of passionate advocacy; his piece on Hardy and the “literary happiness scale” made me laugh out loud; and his discussion of the “mind-crushing plentifulness” of contemporary access to e-texts is balanced and valuable. So is a lot else in this book, the main fault of which is really that it’s too little a history for its own good.

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