The Written World, by Kevin Power, The Lilliput Press, 256 pp, €15, ISBN: 978-1843518327
Talk about a dream start. Your first novel picked up and printed by a real, actual publishing house. That is select company right there. But there’s more. It is well received by critics. You are an important new voice. Minor controversy propels your debut into a wider conversation, the plot’s similarities with a notorious real-life event reviving some national “the-state-of-us” anguish. Foreign rights are snapped up. A film adaptation is in the works. On the pig’s back.
That anyway is where I presumed Kevin Power was when I bought Aconteceu em Blackrock for my Brazilian partner (who enjoyed its deep dive into the world of Dublin’s mauricinhos and patricinhas). But what actually happened to him following the publication of Bad Day in Blackrock is more interesting than mere success. Initially, yes, he did get to enjoy the fruits that come with being “that superficially glamourous thing, a full-time professional writer”, which in his case meant no longer having to do much actual writing:
Instead I engaged in what I thought of as writing-adjacent (and therefore justifiable) activities: reading, writing book reviews, re-watching all seven seasons of The Sopranos on DVD, keeping a journal, rearranging my books, watching the 24-hour news channels (since a writer needed to keep up with the news), scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, smoking, entering into various ill-advised romantic relationships whose ups and downs could plausibly be rationalised as the sort of ‘experiences’ a novelist might draw on when he did, at last, sit down to write, drinking in immodest quantities, taking drugs in modest quantities, and so on.
But this writing-adjacent life eventually gave way to crisis. Power was gripped by anxiety. Medication was prescribed. The money ran out. The published author ended up working in a call centre. The problem was not writer’s block. Power in fact had never stopped writing fiction even (“Astonishingly”) when things were at their bleakest. It was just that there was a terrible disconnect between his assumption after Bad Day’s success that he was now “a writer” and his growing realisation as new work was rejected that he had barely started the journey:
It dawned on me only belatedly, but it was a devastating realization when it finally struck. My apprenticeship had not ended with the publication of Bad Day in Blackrock. It had barely begun. This was my peculiar fate: to find myself ‘a writer’ while I was still unformed, unknown to myself, and lacking utterly in the kind of discipline that a sustained career in writing requires.
This crisis and its resolution are recounted in the opening essay of The Written World, a collection of the non-fiction by which Power, so to speak, kept his hand in during the long thirteen years between the cursedly successful debut and his well-received second novel, White City, which finally appeared last year. It turns out these lost years were actually productive ones, just not at what Power thought of as his primary calling. Instead of publishing his own he was writing about other people’s fiction. In the second essay, “A Perishable Art”, he estimates that he wrote over 350 book reviews between his two novels. Thirty-five of them are collected here, twenty-one of them short, at times sharp, cutting even, but always thoughtful reviews for newspapers that on their own are worth the price of admission. The main course is the fourteen longer essays that will most interest readers of Power’s fiction. With “The Lost Decade” we finally understand why we had to wait so long for White City and several of the other long pieces make pretty clear that reading and thinking about other people’s writing helped him thread a path out of his fictional despair. “A Perishable Art” is both a review of Megan Nolan’s debut novel, Acts of Desperation, in which he also lays out in some detail what he sees as the function of book reviews and criticism, what use they serve, including for the writer: “A rave is nice, but it teaches you nothing. A critique just might help you grow.” This sounds like hard-earned insight. His final verdict on Desperation sounds almost protective: “[It] is a first novel by an author who turns thirty-one this year. In other words, Megan Nolan has just begun to do what she wants to do.” On the reception her book has received he writes:
A festival of heavily adjectival raves, which we can safely ignore; two or three pieces of genuine criticism, for which we should all be grateful. So, on balance, it’s a wash. It always is. In the end, what we have is Acts of Desperation, a novel by a gifted writer; and, accompanying it, a handful of reviews that, read judiciously, might just help both its author and its readers to begin to do some thinking about what it is, what it means, and where we go from here.
In The Written World we are reading the fruit of Power’s labours as he worked out where he’d go from Bad Day. This of course might be true and yet also too reductive, no more than an interesting biographical insight into a writer who had a particularly difficult second novel. After all most novelists think and write a lot about books. Power does so particularly well. Every essay here is a pleasure to read. The prose is clear, lightly effervescent but never showy, refusing to call attention to itself, just confident. The light touch with which Power deploys his wide and deep reading is illustrated by his extensive quotation, from the Roman dramatist Terence to Hannibal Lecter. It is a masterclass in and of itself. (A taste: “When I read Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, I can see Ireland in the mirror. I don’t always see the same thing, of course. The country I tend to see most often, however, closely resembles the England described by George Orwell in 1941: ‘a family with the wrong members in control’.”)
The conversational style probably masks how finely worked the pieces are but they frequently make clear how important style is to Power. Bad writing and cliché offend him and though clearly a tolerant type he nevertheless has zero patience for those who cause him such offence. On Will Self’s use of “a kind of downmarket pastiche of James Joyce” he writes: “None of this would matter if the verbal texture of Self ’s novel could be relied upon as a source of sentence-by-sentence pleasure. But the prose is often bad …” (The only way a writer can perhaps compensate for bad writing is by spinning a good yarn. The apocalyptic evangelical Christian Left Behind novels are prose-wise “remedial stuff” but “narratively compelling” if “morally purblind”.)
The delivery to the reader of sentence-by-sentence pleasure matters to Power and he clearly takes great care with his own production, even in what many writers might think of as the more disposable shorter book review. This close attention to style results in one of the best essays (perhaps the best) gathered here, “Martin Amis: Wilde at Heart”. Here Power, through close reading, outs the great contemporary English stylist as a closet imitator of Oscar Wilde: “Behind every word of Amis’s corpus, Wilde lurks – unacknowledged, but indisputably central.”
But then, an important distinction:
Where Wilde’s epigrams sought to provoke and disturb, Amis’s solicit a cosy agreement. His work therefore embodies a peculiar paradox: it represents an aestheticism of the liberal mainstream. If Wilde’s Aestheticism was animated by a radical critique of culture and society, Amis’s update jettisons the radicalism and keeps what is left over: a belief that the world, including the world of politics, can be mastered by style. The result is writing of a peculiarly limited brilliance, in which the fireworks of Amis’s phrasemaking obscure significant areas of darkness.
What I take from this is not so much that Power is a radical but rather that he believes style is not a substitute for ideas, nor should it be used as an evasive measure to obscure areas of darkness or deployed as a bully in debate. His own clear prose works hard at allowing him to do some expansive thinking in what is still a concise amount of space. In the longer essays various big ideas (example: the Apocalypse) are explored in some depth with a lot of ground crisply covered in relatively few pages.
If his style is clear so is his thinking. Now a university professor, he is versed in the culture wars that consume the humanities, but academia is not his audience here. There is no jargon. In “Pretentiously Opaque” he has good fun laughing at literary theory (“Of course, mocking cherry-picked gobbets of fatuous prose is one of the cheapest tactics available to the enemy of Theory”). But it is not just the impenetrable language. He laments literary theory leaving us “stuck with an intellectual culture that, at its worst, devotes itself to finding misogyny, racism, and capitalist greed in texts like prizes in boxes of breakfast cereal, and that in teaching us to see the politics in every text, Theory has left us unable to see anything but the politics in every text.” He has little time for “the virtue-signalling culture warriors of Twitter”. In “Hating Jonathan Franzen”, he writes that the US writer’s lack of non-white characters,
in a literary climate that has elevated ‘representation’ to the status of an aesthetic principle … makes him look either obsolete or purblind, if not actively (the literary thoughtcrime of the moment) ‘exclusionary’. But there is no point in defending Franzen’s work on the grounds that writers are allowed to write about whomever and whatever they choose, in whatever fashion they prefer. Large swathes of the literary community no longer believe in this elementary principle of intellectual liberty, and saying that it doesn’t matter that Franzen only writes about middle-class white people – that it only matters how well he writes about them – will only get me in trouble with the commissars of literary Twitter.
His contempt for this climate and those who police it is then made clear by his indeed going on to defend Franzen, dismissing his essays as “unsatisfactorily haphazard” only to go back to the “real Franzen”, the best of his fiction “with its omnivorous sympathies, its richly satisfying plots, and its profound comic vision of the contemporary world”. He risks literary thoughtcrime again when tackling the subject of his PhD thesis. In “Norman Mailer: The Almighty”, he tells us he has read everything by a writer whose stock has now crashed, “and I don’t regret the effort”. This is not a defence of Mailer per se, whom Power spends much (but not all) of the essay ripping into. Rather it is a refusal to join in dumping on someone whose posthumous reputation has collapsed in what is now an ideologically adverse climate because, after all: “Every age assumes that its judgements are final – otherwise, why get out of bed in the morning? Mailer’s untimely meditations are not what we want to hear right now. But fashions change, and writers can wait decades before finding a secure nook in the canon.” In the twenty-first century Mailer is increasingly left unread because he was a misogynist and Power has no doubt that many of his ideas mean he is now palaeolithically out of touch. But the work deserves to be tackled on its own terms, otherwise in Mailer’s case we risk losing access to “a series of unique, supercharged books about American politics and culture”, among them classics of 1960s reportage like The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago. In the deeply felt essay “Susan Sontag’s Will”, Power defends this major influence on his own intellectual development from her biographer’s charge that she was a terrible person: “But even if this judgement stands, it still feels necessary to argue that being terrible was the least interesting thing about her.” Power always plays the book, not the writer. Or almost always. He does land a hilarious two-footed, studs-up challenge on Jordan Peterson that is all the funnier because “he’s not that type of player”.
Power is not anything so trite as anti-woke. Theory can be laughed at while its contributions are also acknowledged. He quotes the much excoriated gender theorist Judith Butler, calling her memorial for Jacques Derrida in the LRB “as eloquent a defence of Theory as you could hope to find: a moving claim for its continued relevance in a world shaped, in constantly changing ways, by power and by those who resist it”. Power is not an ideologue or partisan. He is rather an independent thinker sifting through his subjects looking for useful clues as to how we might make sense of our world and live more fulfilled lives in it. The anti-woke philosopher John Gray is taken to task for his “pusillanimity” in the face of the human experience, his books “aimed not at the millions who seek clarity about contemporary world events, but at the handful of individuals who might be capable of living such a rigorously denuded interior life”. (Though it is a devastatingly simple Saul Bellow line that administers the coup de grâce to poor Gray).
In these pages Power does not strike you as someone after clear-cut answers or attempting to mark positions or lines of argument but rather as looking for a genuine engagement with writers, their ideas and the times, looking for the individual amidst the communitarian. There is a passage in “Zadie Smith’s Uncertainty” in which he locates his English contemporary in “the radical middle”:
This is where humanism lives, of course, if it lives at all; and in calling Smith an heir to the humanist tradition, I certainly don’t mean to dismiss her as either a fusty traditionalist or a wishful liberal. Genuine humanist thought is radical almost by definition (nihil humanum mihi alienum remains a highly subversive notion, after all), and in an age of proliferating anti-humanist radicalisms, Smith’s work is salutary.
And so is Power’s, and for similar reasons. The final long essay, the last chapter of the book, after the shorter book reviews, is an envoi for another humanist, Clive James, the “stylish metropolitan” who clearly appears to be a model for Power the critic: “urban and urbane, scorning the ivory tower for the café and the pub, filing copy to deadline like any other professional, and turning the critical eye on anything that wasn’t nailed down”. Power spent years between his novels filing copy to deadline. The process was part of his growth as a writer of fiction. White City is a better book than Bad Day in Blackrock. But probably still part of his apprenticeship. More to come on that front, one suspects.
The Written World though? This is not the work of an apprentice critic. He says of James:
Clive James knew that the literary essay, the book review, the feuilleton (whatever you want to call it: the occasional piece written to enlighten and amuse) was not just where culture happened, but where art could happen, too, especially if you believed that “literary journalism ought to be written from deep personal commitment and to the highest standards of cogency the writer could attain”.
Power also believes and commits to this. As a result his book is metropolitan and cosmopolitan in word and spirit, enlightening and amusing, and across its pages art is happening too.
Tom Hennigan is the South America correspondent of The Irish Times and is based in São Paulo, Brazil. There are currently fourteen reviews by Kevin Power in the drb archive.