James Sutherland (ed.), The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes

This is a book out of its time. It was planned between the wars as a project for someone who never did much about it before his death in 1952, and was then taken over as a retirement project by James Sutherland. By the time it appeared in 1975 the world had moved on and it celebrated the literary tastes of a previous generation. Only two of the featured authors (Dylan Thomas and Frank O’Connor) were born in the 20th century.

The anecdotes themselves are often chosen for their relevance to literature – not so much its content (how the life might be reflected in the work) but the actual process of production. So we hear of spats with long-forgotten fellow authors, struggles with publishers and the reception of other people’s plays that have sunk without trace. If literary rivalries and the practicalities of authorship are of particular interest to you, you will find much material of interest here. Otherwise, it is rather like being an onlooker at someone else’s party.

An irritating feature of the book is that the sources of the anecdotes are usually only given in endnotes. Anyone with any sort of historical bent will want to know what these sources were and maybe a bit more context for them. Are they contemporary? Are they from published writings or private ones and what was the intended original readership? How reliable is the source? For earlier authors in particular, much of the material seems to be gossipy and unreliable, often of a bawdy nature though hardly likely to raise an eyebrow now. Of course even fictitious anecdotes give insights, if only into the time in which they originated.

This book was crying out for revision as soon as it was published. In fact, rather than revise it, Oxford commissioned The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes which started afresh, included far more recent authors, included more anecdotes that did not relate to literary production and put sources and annotations alongside the anecdotes rather than at the end. Read that instead!

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