Book review: ‘Lives of the Novelists’ by John Sutherland

My assignment: Read almost 300 literary biographies in more than 800 pages, all of English-language authors, beginning in the 17th century and ending in the present day. “That’s like reading a reference book!” said a shocked friend. Yes, but no: Every entry in “Lives of the Novelists” is written by just one person, British critic John Sutherland, so the book has an internal continuity that makes it read like history, not an encyclopedia. And Sutherland’s writing is just plain delightful.

“He spent money he did not have on finery all his life,” he writes of Oliver Goldsmith (“The Vicar of Wakefield”), adding, “The tailors of London wept at his death.” Raymond Chandler went to France: “What he did in Paris is unknown other than that, to his later chagrin, he neglected to lose his virginity.” Ian Fleming started out as a dismally bad stockbroker until “lucky for him, and unluckily for the world, war broke out and he was promptly recruited into naval intelligence.” And there’s this one-two punch: “If there were an award for the most influential bad novelist in literary history, Ayn Rand would be a contender. A woman of ferocious competitive instinct, she would be furious if she did not also win that award.”

Sutherland has a much larger body of work to cover than Walter Scott did with his 1825 “Lives of the Novelists,” and trying to fit all of Sutherland’s witticisms into a newspaper review would be as impossible as listing all 294 included authors. He begins with John Bunyan, author of “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” who lived from 1628 to ’88, and ends (almost) with Alice Sebold (“The Lovely Bones”), born in 1963. Sutherland sees crosscurrents in the historical flow and scoops up adventure novels, romance, detective fiction, maestros of pulp and even Victorian-era porn along with the expected literary greats, who include Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe, Anthony Trollope, the Brontës, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Henry James and George Orwell.

“What I’ve written has been sustained by the belief that literary life and work are inseparable and mutually illuminating,” Sutherland declares in the book’s preface. It’s blessedly brief, ducking the tradition of academics pontificating for pages about what you’re about to read before you read it.

That’s all the more remarkable considering Sutherland’s background: the 73-year-old Brit is an emeritus professor at University College, London, a longtime visiting professor at Caltech and a former Man Booker Prize judge. Maybe it’s regularly contributing to the Guardian newspaper that keeps his writing accessible, or maybe he just doesn’t take himself too seriously. He includes quotes by several novelists with contradictory ideas about how their personal lives should or should not be read against their work.

There is plenty of personal detail. Authors are husbands and lovers; they are spiritual and chaste, and they are sexually tormented. There are children out of wedlock — “blow-bys,” in Sutherland’s parlance. Some authors had wretched childhoods; others made terrible parents. Sutherland is particularly drawn to authors who wrestled with Catholicism or — and? — addiction. There are many indulgences: in drugs, alcohol and overwrought prose. The last is how Edward Bulwer-Lytton earns a spot — he is now remembered as the name behind the annual worst-first-sentence contest run by San Jose State thanks to his “It was a dark and stormy night.” He was just one of many well-born 19th century writers who, finding themselves hard up for funds, turned to the tawdry business of novel writing.

Sutherland’s survey demonstrates the way that novels have been treated over time. Initially thought to be a kind of intellectual slumming, they grew during the 19th century to cultural prominence. American writers dominate the novel story in the early 20th century, and by the present day, he predicts a cosmopolitan multiculturalism — the last entry is for Rana Dasgupta, born in 1971, a British Indian who has made his home on three continents.

The earliest novels were written under a degree of anonymity and mystery that makes the truth of them hard to sort out. Was Aphra Behn’s “Oroonoko,” published in 1689, truth or invention? Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year” had a veneer of accuracy, but Defoe was only about 6 during the time he describes. Samuel Richardson’s name appeared on the epistolary “Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded” only as the editor, not as the inventor of Pamela and her plight.

As novels became a regular part of culture, authorship became clearer — that is, until the modern era. Again, readers wrestle with the intersection of fiction and truth-telling, as in the case of Bret Easton Ellis — whose “Lunar Park” features Bret Easton Ellis, who is both like and unlike the author himself. And then there is Philip Roth, whose protagonists have followed close at his heels. “Disentangling Roth from his fictional characters is like trying to scrape sauce off spaghetti,” Sutherland writes.

Sutherland is a Victorianist, and for those eager to read these literary biographies start to finish who lack the enthusiasm for the “silver fork” dramas he knows so well, the going can get a little slow; the long Victorian era brims with novelists.

The biographies appear in chronological order by birth, which makes for amusing juxtapositions (Zane Grey beside W. Somerset Maugham). In times of rapid cultural change, or when authors are particularly long-lived, the back and forth can get a little see-saw-y. On one page there’s a public gay relationship; on the next, decades earlier, there’s a female author who needs a masculine pseudonym to get published. Those shifts are disorienting for the reader, yet they fit: They must have been dizzying for the authors to live through.

At the end of each author’s biography, Sutherland lists their most significant work and a biographical reference for more information. Over and over I found myself jotting down “must get/must read” for titles, both new and familiar, that Sutherland imbued with a sense of literary vitality.

The body of knowledge this book reflects is astounding. Each life story includes a description of the author’s work, with erudite evaluations of several books. That’s for the 294 included authors; there are many others whose works didn’t fit the schematic of this particular, idiosyncratic book. It may be a reference book, but it’s something more: It tells the story of the people who’ve told our culture’s stories, high and low and otherwise, for 21/2 centuries.