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Best known for the sleek, sophisticated novels he wrote in the 1970s and ’80s, W. M. Spackman was also a literary critic of formidable power and slashing wit. Gathered here are all the essays and reviews he published, including those that appeared in his 1967 book of essays On the Decay of Humanism, which one critic praised as “a critical book of astonishing arrogance, brio, and erudition.” Spackman brought wide learning and cosmopolitan savoir-faire to his concerns for how literature is taught and evaluated, processes that he felt desperately needed to be overhauled.
Ranging from ancient Greek and Latin literature to the latest poetry and novels, these brilliant essays argue that a work of literature should be evaluated on its artistry and craftsmanship, not on its content or ideas. Spackman quotes with approval Nabokov’s belief that “Style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are a lot of hogwash,” and insists “aesthetic assessments…must come before everything else.” On those grounds, he finds such celebrated masters as Leo Tolstoy and Henry James inferior to lesser-known artists like Henry Green and Ivy Compton-Burnett. His iconoclastic views are supported with close technical analyses, but in a relaxed style that delights as it instructs. Spackman provides both a fresh look at the Western literary canon and a model for writing about it. Spackman’s Complete Essays is a vital book for anyone who cares deeply about literary culture.