An interview with Frances Wilson

June 2022, no. 443

An interview with Frances Wilson

June 2022, no. 443
Frances Wilson (photograph via Bloomsbury)

Frances Wilson lives in London and writes for the TLS and the New York Review of Books. The author of six biographies including Guilty Thing: A life of Thomas De Quincey and Burning Man: The ascent of D.H. Lawrence, she is currently working on a life of young Muriel Spark.


When did you first write for ABR?

I was invited onto the ABR Podcast last summer and subsequently asked by Peter Rose to review Dream-Child, a new biography of Charles Lamb.


What makes a fine critic?

A distinction needs to made between the critic and the book reviewer, because not all reviewers are critics. The reviews that run in the literary pages of newspapers – plot synopsis followed by puffery or condemnation – bear little relation to criticism, not least because critics read closely while reviewers tend to speed-read. Criticism is an art, and the finest criticism should be equal to its subject: a good critic should have a distinctive voice, a good ear, and a strong style. I like audacity and eccentricity in criticism, and I particularly admire those critics who are alert not only to the words on the page but to the ‘unconscious’ of the text – what is elided, repressed or not quite expressed in the writing.


Which critics most impress you? 

Occasional critics, like D.H. Lawrence, are the ones I am most impressed by. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature was at least two hundred years ahead of its time, because a full century has passed since the book first appeared and we still haven’t come to terms with it. Even the title was outrageous: how could America have a body of classic literature when it was a newly minted country of pioneers? And how could mad books like Moby-Dick even be called literature? I similarly admire George Orwell’s essay on Charles Dickens, which should serve as the introduction to all Dickens’s novels, and Elizabeth Hardwick’s essays on everyone, but especially Jane Carlyle and Dorothy Wordsworth. I revere Camille Paglia’s outrageous masterpiece, Sexual Personae


Do you accept most books on offer or are you selective?

After years of accepting everything that came my way, I am now selective. W.H. Auden was right that reviewing bad books is bad for the character, not just because a bad book leaves behind a stain but because a bad book takes so much longer to review than a good one, and none of us likes to spend time in poor company.


What do you look for from an editor?

A good match between reviewer and subject and an ability to push the reviewer into saying the thing they are holding back from saying.


Do you ever receive feedback from readers or authors?

Occasionally. It is nice to hear from authors who are happy with your review, less nice to hear from those who are not. I received a terrifically grand letter of complaint from the historian Keith Thomas after I reviewed his last book in New Statesman. When I didn’t reply he wrote to me a second time, even more grandly, insisting that I explain myself. I think he wanted an apology.


What do you think of negative reviews?

Obviously I don’t like getting them, but I’m perfectly happy to dole them out. It is not the business of criticism to be polite, and a hatchet job on one of the untouchables, like Michael Hoffman’s recent review of Colm Tóibín’s The Magician in the TLS, makes for a thrilling read. There was a lot to be said for the great age of rough-house, championed by the nineteenth-century magazines like Blackwoods, which Karl Miller described as a journal of squabash, bam, and balaam.


How do you feel about reviewing people you know?

It’s unwise to review friends, so I review them only when their book is good.


What’s a critic’s primary responsibility?

To position the book, get under its grain, measure its strength, pinpoint its weaknesses, and determine whether the author has said what he or she wanted to say and achieved what they set out to achieve. 

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