West, Paul. Oxford Days.

Latham, NY: British American Publishing, 2002.

Among American academics who are also at least part-time Anglophiles there is often a fascination with — almost a yearning for — the University of Oxford, the font of higher education and scholarship among English-speakers. I share that fascination and I’ve always enjoyed books about Oxford and even films and TV dramas set there (yes, like Inspector Morse), and so I picked up this volume on the strength of its title.

I expected a memoir of the author’s experiences at university, a collection of reminiscences, and that may be what this is, . . . but I’ll never know because I found the prose completely impenetrable. I admit it, I was totally lost from the first paragraph, about “the Sitwells’ Renishaw Hall,” and even though I slogged on through the first chapter in some desperation, nothing ever became clearer. Now, I am a not inexperienced reader. I also write and I understand how prose style works (or is supposed to work), and I have several decades’ experience as an editor. While, of course, I end up enjoying some books and not others, it’s very rare that I’m so wholly defeated by any book. I also confess that, though I was a big-city librarian for more than thirty years, and my experience of adult-level fiction is very wide indeed, I had never heard of Paul West — who apparently has written some three dozen books and won a number of awards (though most of them are rather obscure). The flap copy for this volume is of the most annoyingly fawning sort (“our finest living stylist in English” and “no other contemporary writer can match him”), but I note it wasn’t put out by a major publisher. And a check of his works at the Library of Congress website shows that while some of his novels were published by the large commercial houses, others were issued by very iffy subsidy operations like Vantage. (No self-respecting literary author would have anything to do with Vantage.) Finally, as the icing on this unreadable cake, there is so much leading between the lines, the eye stumbles and trips on the print as it attempts to travel down the page. (The book is less than 270 pages, but if the leading were more reasonably set, it probably would come out at less than 200.) I don’t believe I’ll be attempting any of West’s other works.

Published in: on 14 July 2011 at 5:06 am  Comments (3)  
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  1. Where to begin? The poet Edith Sitwell, and her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell, lived at Renishaw Hall, not far from where Paul West grew up in Eckington, UK. The Sitwells are not obscure. The Lannan Award is not an obscure award. And not one of West’s novels has been published by a vanity press. The only book West published with Vantage was The Fossils of Piety, a small collection of essays from the 1950s written when he was a young man — and before he had ever written any fiction.

    • I’m quite familiar with the Sitwells. I was referring to West’s casually smug name-dropping (like, “Oh, yes, the Sitwells, old friends, you know”). There are maybe 1,000 English-language literary awards out there and 975 of them are “obscure,” in that almost no one outside of their own tiny circle has heard of them. That’s what “obscure” means. This includes the Lannan Award, which is presented by a small family foundation with no other apparent reason for existence. Vantage was but one publishing example I pointed out, because people have heard of Vantage and are aware of its reputation, where they won’t have heard of some of his other publishers, including British American. And West is still not “our finest living stylist in English.” That’s such a jaw-dropping claim, it’s not even ludicrous.

  2. Oh, I’d be cut to the quick if you were right, but you’ve chosen to ignore the other work that the Lannans have done for writers and artists and Native American groups, denigrate the reputation of British American, and, without ever having read any of his fiction, slur the reputation of a writer who *is* a fine contemporary sylist. If you had read his novels Love’s Mansion or The Women of Whitechapel or The Tent of Orange Mist, then you might know what you’re talking about. Otherwise, you don’t. It’s a shame that you could be so easily deterred by “flap copy.”

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