Diversity and Depth in Fiction
Angus Wilson is one of the most highly regarded English novelists of the postwar period and so far the only writer of his generation to be knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. Best known for such novels as Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956) and The Old Men at the Zoo (1961), Wilson has also written a considerable amount of literary criticism, including book-length studies of Émile Zola, Charles Dickens, and Rudyard Kipling. Diversity and Depth in Fiction is a collection of thirty-two essays, lectures, and reviews published between 1950 and 1981; also included is a lengthy 1972 Iowa Review interview in which he discusses his own work. These pieces focus mainly on individual writers: Samuel Richardson, William Godwin, Jane Austen, Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevski, George Meredith, Zola, George Gissing, Kipling, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, Marcel Proust, Dorothy Richardson, Ivy Compton-Burnett, John Cowper Powys, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green, Christopher Isherwood, Claude Simon, Albert Camus, and Günter Grass. Wilson comments more briefly on several other writers in these pieces and in such essays as “Evil in the English Novel,” “The Dilemma of the Contemporary Novelist,” and “The Novelist and the Narrator.”
In addition to examining the strengths and weaknesses of these writers, their contributions to the development of the novel, their influence on the works of others, including himself, Wilson offers criticism of the English and Continental novel in general, of critics and readers. He does not look down on traditional literary criticism, although he compares some of it to “eating rather dry biscuits.” Wilson sees some virtue in “the only sort of critical contribution that a novelist, untrained in literary scholarship, can make which may justify his amateur intrusion—a contribution unashamedly subjective.” Even if a few of Wilson’s subjective views are superficial, unclear, or contradictory, this collection is frequently stimulating because of his passion about his art.
The most entertaining and infuriating passages of Diversity and Depth in Fiction are those in which Wilson comments about specific novelists. He objects to Jane Austen’s taking the passion out of the novel, a passion instilled by his beloved Samuel Richardson; he also strongly criticizes her for making a middle-class way of living “represent the basic moral code” and a middleclass view of right and wrong “sufficient to explain human conduct.” For Wilson, the novelist misleads his readers and himself and violates his art by simplifying morality. Even Dickens, his favorite writer, is guilty of this transgression: David Copperfield (1850) misses greatness because it is always in “danger of flattering that somewhat smug acceptance of life that is called ’middlebrow.’”
Wilson frequently implies that what a novelist has to say is more important than how he says it: “Some novelists—Anthony Trollope is foremost—have been in danger of hiding their originality beneath the mass of very readable novels they produce. George Gissing’s unrelenting originality is such that it has forced itself upon our attention through a heavy mass of completely unreadable novels.” The novelist is such a peculiar animal that he can occasionally achieve greatness, as with...
(The entire section is 1382 words.)