By all accounts that I’ve read, Lang seemed like something of a difficult man. I certainly found him a difficult man to like. He was a critic - in the days when literary criticism was grappling, some might say trying to hold back the tide of, the inevitable rise of popular literature. During Lang’s lifetime writing changed from being a gentlemanly activity to being a profession. The birth pangs were uneasy. Men like Lang positioned themselves at the centre and critics felt then (as they do now) that simply by being critics they had an authority.
In the latter quarter of the 19th century critics were on the rise. Personal and professional battles were fought out in the periodical press and it’s ‘puffing’ and ‘log rolling’ tactics. Longman’s and Hodder & Stoughton were the Coke and Pepsi of their day, and an awareness, nay understanding, of the workings of both of them is vital to developing any clear picture of what was happening (and what Lang was doing) in the late 19th century.
We never get 2020 vision on the past and I am aware that my own vision of Lang is perhaps partisan, probably biased and definitely without full contextual awareness. That said, my response on reading him thus far that Lang wore his friends like a cloak. He was good at falling out with folk. He was robust in his criticism, which was not uncommon at the time, as within the coterie of up and coming writers there was, it seems to me, an understanding that the work of any writer, friend or foe, was to be distinguished from personal feeling. But of course sometimes the game got too rough and when we read from the benefit of hindsight, we should beware of taking the criticism too much to heart. I suspect Lang was foremost among those who, paid for his opinions, perhaps forgot that this in and of itself did not give him authority above all else.
The monetisation of both critical appraisal and published works set the scene both for an outpouring of hyperbole and some very nasty sniping. We do well to remember ‘the times’ when we read both criticism and praise of writing in the latter part of the 19th century. People were being paid to say things, profit was driving much of the commentary, and power was being contested through the literary arena.
Careers were made and broken. The cult of celebrity brought with it a plague of plagiarism cases and friendships were sometimes broken. Lang was certainly not averse to mixing it – turning friends into foes if it served his purposes.
While some would say otherwise, I warn you that Lang is not the last word on things literary. But he does open some interesting windows into the past. He writes at length on the subject. He gives advice to authors and readers and it all feels just a little bit proscriptive. In ‘How to Fail in Literature’ he attempts to be humorous (it doesn’t carry across the generations well) as well as offering some ‘universal’ truths.
Yet after all the reading of Lang I’ve recently done – it’s been eclectic I admit - the question Lang has me asking is ‘Do you believe in literary criticism.’ And perhaps that’s his strength. Not the answers he gives but the questions he poses (intentionally and unintentionally.)
There are universal truths contained within his writing, things that are still worthy of consideration, of course there are, but they are mediated with his own, somewhat prejudiced, perspective.
Like anyone, he appears wildly contradictory if you read too much (or too out of context?) He is quoted as saying
“In literature, as in love, one can only speak for himself.”
And yet he made a living as a literary critic.
He is well aware of his own gravitas as he says “Young men, especially in America, write to me and ask me to recommend “a course of reading.” Distrust a course of reading! People who really care for books read all of them. There is no other course.” And yet his biographer and friend Edmund Gosse said that Lang was one of the most partisan of reader’s he had ever met. If he didn’t like someone’s work he just completely denied its value and refused to read it.
I am forced to conclude that perhaps he didn’t entirely practice what he preached. But then who of us really does.
So – for me, Lang is valuable as a window into another world. A conduit to further study and exploration about the ins and outs and highs and lows of publishing at a time when commerce became more important even than class in determining a writer’s ability or credibility. If you are cynical about creative success, looking through Lang may help direct you towards developing a deeper understanding of the people at play when profit came calling and when words like ‘talent’ and ‘product’ began to mix in new contexts. Read Lang by all means, but take it all with a pinch of salt. Don’t believe everything you read. Use it all (this included) as a start point for learning something yourself. Suspect us all. We all have our angles.
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