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Authors of repute

16 May 2014

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AS A metaphor for the transience of all things earthly, it is almost as vivid as Bede's bird flying through the great hall: "Like gnus running across a lake, and one by one being pulled under by crocodiles." Thus did the man from Penguin Classics publishing describe the process by which literary reputations vanish.

It is a startling image; but by the end of Archive on 4: Pulped Fiction (Saturday, R4), you got the point. In the long list of gnus being pulled under, we might include Arnold Bennett, Malcolm Lowry, and Angus Wilson. Evelyn Waugh seemed destined for obscurity when he died, but television continues to keep him going.

This was a cruel documentary, presented nevertheless with much courtesy by D. J. Taylor, whose job it was to ask the pundits - publishers, writers, and critics - to name their favourite has-beens. The invitation to sneer, under the façade of wizened empathy, was presumably hard to resist, and I could not help thinking that some lists included names that had controlled the patronage cliques when the contributors had been young and aspiring. Similarly, those literary prizewinners who have not followed up their success came in for gloating mention.

Although the questions were asked - what makes literature survive, and does its survivability indicate greatness? - these were discussions that lay below the programme's pay-grade. As the programme title indicates, the spec. here was to include a good dollop of BBC archive material; and thus we were led from one case-study to another with only just enough time to reflect on how long ago it was since we had read an Iris Murdoch or a Barbara Pym.

The reputations of poets are surely more fragile even than novelists; but one who has managed to stay afloat, despite the hostility of many a post-modern critic, is Dylan Thomas, as Radio 3's Dylan Thomas Day (Monday of last week) bore witness. The party came to a climax with The Verb, presented live from the Laugharne Festival, where the audience could, as one, quote passages from Thomas's greatest. "How did I sing like in my chains?" the presenter, Ian McMillan, asked. "Like the sea", the audience shouted back.

Indeed, Thomas's reputation seems to survive despite the recognition that there is some absurdity in the oeuvre. It was reassuring, for instance, to hear McMillan and his guests admit that most of "Altarwise by Owl-Light" was beyond them; and that it is part of the attraction of the poetry that the reader does not understand it all.

The prioritising of musical over linguistic signals in our brains was at the heart of last week's episode of The Why Factor (World Service, Friday). Music has an ability to stick in our brains in a way that can be intensely annoying. If you cannot get "Kumbaya" out of your head then you are suffering from an "earworm" - a global phenomenon, apparently.

All of which points to an evolutionary purpose for songs and their "stickability". As Daniel Levitin explained, songs might have been a good way to remember the way to the nearest food source, or to avoid a particular crocodile-infested lake. And this is why the species Homo sapiens has risen above gnus in the great chain of being.

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