Stephen Baldwin’s post about the power of blurb (below) strikes me as making an essential point. How can the marketing – the all-important positioning when it comes to capturing new readers – encapsulate what those Powys novels are really like? Can it ever be inspiring without being hopelessly misleading?
I’m racked with prejudice when it comes to books. I find it hard to stomach much that’s been written post-1960. My nose turns up at anything that seems desperate to entertain me, too consciously written with the Booker Prize in mind, that just ends up looking like a business plan to lure sales. So I’m unlikely to read any contemporary literature unless it’s linked in a reassuring way back to an earlier age of sincerity, when there could be more interest in authenticity over hooks and gimmicks. I must be missing out, but there it is.
So it was the blurb that provided my entry point to John Cowper Powys back in 2000: the comparison of a British writer with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (along with its golden mystery of a cover). On reflection the comparison is an impressive one, but if I’d been banking on a Tolstoy meets Dostoevsky epic I’d have wanted my money back. There are simple and complex affinities with both Russians, but the whole reading experience, the richness of vision, the humour and weirdness of A Glastonbury Romance is really something else.
If I have to answer the question about who Powys is – and it’s not that often – I will tend to say he’s “a bit like Thomas Hardy if he’d been a Modernist, writing later into the 20th century”. What I’m really thinking is that yes, he’s a bit like Hardy, but “a drunk one, damning his publishers to hell, ditching his suit, rolling up grubby sleeves and writing the kinds of novels he’d always really wanted to write; he’s spilling himself onto the page – and damn the scandal, damn censorship, damn prison!” But it’s never going to work for blurb.