The Collection: Journalism, Reviews, Essays, Short Stories, Lectures

Ackroyd, Peter
Chatto & Windus
ISBN 0-701-17300-9
465pp
Date finished: 2006-08-07

An occasional discussion thread in rec.arts.sf.written is about sequels that are so bad you no longer like the earlier books as much. For me, this collection of Ackroyd's book and movie reviews, essays, and short stories is something strangely similar: I would call Ackroyd one of my favorite authors, but reading this book makes me like the author much less.

Much of my distaste comes from the snarky tone of the early book reviews, written for the Spectator in the early 1970s. Ackroyd became the magazine's literary editor when he was only 23 years old, and his style was that of the enfant terrible. Consider these snippets:

If the publishers are right and this is the 'climax' of Mishima's work, I am very grateful to have missed all of the other novels, and if he is indeed 'the most dynamic and outspoken writer of post-war Japan' then that crowded and polluted people should learn to concentrate on making pen batteries.

Since there is not one good poem in this Poetry Supplement, and since it has been distributed for Christmas in the same spirit as other people give scarves or bottles of gin, it might be charitable to ignore it altogether and to discuss the poets of Zambia or of the Windward Islands.

This is the novel to end all of Nabokov's novels -- or at least one hopes so.

In fact the writing is so consistently heavy-handed, so trite and so clumsy that it has taken [Ted] Hughes's rather elderly admirers a real effort of will to admire it.

I might not like any of these books any better than Ackroyd does, but there's something disconcerting about the snarky and arrogant tone.

He's also enamored of poets who, judging from the excerpts, are very dull:

As [Edward] Dorn puts it: "It is a real mystique, not a / mystique. A mystique of the real." ... The 'real in his early poetry is natural without being in the least sentimental, and this book marks the strength of his poetic progress ...

And I'm amazed by his comments in a review of a TV program about Darwin:

What astonishes me is the purblind stance of scientists, quite award of how other scientific theories have been usurped or disproven, who still cling obstinately to a theory fashionable some hundred years before. I am willing to bet that no one 'believes in' the theory of evolution, at least in the manner in which it was once believed. It is no longer an appropriate myth and, like all myths, it will give way to another.

Ackroyd has since written a children's book about the origins of life and its subsequent evolution, In The Beginning, that's gotten favorable reviews. What's going on? Did he not actually know anything about evolution at the time of writing? Is he taking issue in the above text with the metaphor of evolution as progress, perhaps? If he is, that certainly isn't expressed clearly.)

At least he liked The Draughtsman's Contract -- if he'd panned it, I would have found that the unforgivable sin.

The collection is partly redeemed by the three short stories that end it: "The Inheritance", "A Christmas Story", and "The Plantation House". They're unsettling and low-key stories about psychological obsession. The stories are ambiguous and the supernatural may or may not be involved, so perhaps they're psychological ghost stories reminiscent of Ramsey Campbell's work.

Tagged: essays

Permalink: http://books.amk.ca/2006/08/Collection.html

%T The Collection
%A Ackroyd, Peter
%@ 2006-08-07
%K essays
%G ISBN 0-701-17300-9
%I Chatto & Windus
%C London
%P 465pp
%S Journalism, Reviews, Essays, Short Stories, Lectures

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