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Sean Latham. Am I a Snob?: Modernism and the Novel.

Sean Latham. Am I a Snob?: Modernism and the Novel. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003. xii + 240 pp.

Snobbery has not, to date, loomed large in modernist studies. More common formulations--modernist scorn for popular culture, say--are moved up a conspicuous gear in Latham's early promise of attention to snobbery's "guilty pleasures" at work in Woolf and Joyce (2). Latham places both the function of snobbery and the figure of the snob centre stage in his narrative of modernism. Beginning in the nineteenth century, his genealogy of the snob (from Thackeray through Wilde to Woolf) is one of its potent and enlivening aspects, identifying, as it does, important continuities as well as semantic shifts between modernist texts and their predecessors. A combination of this original perspective, and detailed approach to his high modernist texts, may well ensure that the reader is convinced of the seminal importance of Woolf's question to the Memoir Club which gives Latham his title (though it was asked to an intimate circle, which Latham acknowledges, and was self-mocking, which he isn't).

Further strengths include the way in which Am I a Snob? forces the reader to engage with literary texts as cultural objects, negotiating their passage in a particular economic environment--still too often absent from the ways in which books are shown to construct significant portions of their meaning; admirable, too is the pithiness with which Latham makes his stand. Examples are afforded both by his analysis of Ulysses, which "has begun to emerge as a site of critical mediation on the limitations and pleasure afforded by the literary marketplace" (119) and Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Wimsey in Clouds of Witness, who "appears not only as an unquestioned master of semiotics but as himself an immaculately constructed sign system in which signifier points endlessly to signifier in a universe governed solely by the rules of mass mediation" (184). Coupled to this ability to abstract is a measured skill in close analysis of literary texts, particularly Orlando and A Portrait of the Artist, with an exception that I will raise later. Canonical modernism is subjected to an astute re-reading via the critical tool of snobbery.

Despite those strengths that I have outlined so far, Latham's book leaves me with a feeling of disquiet. In some ways this is based on the book's ambitious scope, which means that it is, perhaps, about too many things: the structure and content of modernist novels; the character, background and self-awareness of their authors; the function of the literary marketplace, and intentionality vs. reception. I am not sure that the snob provides enough thematic glue in the end (and so there is, perhaps, a reason for the omission of "snob" from Rainey's list of things into which ownership of the very expensive Ulysses in 1922 would turn a reader [150]). Sometimes excellent analysis of the texts strains to eke out some more, leading to somewhat reductive readings, as of an early passage A Portrait of the Artist, which is indeed about class distinction, insofar as this is a fundamental feature of identity (125). But it is by no means the only one visibly at play in this remembered interaction between new boys at school: context demands consideration of the fact that Stephen has just "felt his body small and weak." (1)

The other source of this disquiet is a more significant one. Latham more or less avoids debates as to the role of education in taking the punch out of literary and academic snobbery, and he avoids them entirely in respect of the need and desire to teach literary texts that are difficult and demanding. Regardless of what Joyce or Woolf merely thought about their fathers, themselves or their readership, in what ways do their texts deserve to be read? Latham comes dangerously close to saying that Ulysses, in fact, doesn't as he diagnoses a serious case of the emperor's new clothes (150).

Writerly anxiety as to the nature, and provenance, of readership, is expertly explained by Latham; Q. D. Leavis as reader of Dorothy L. Sayers justifies his approach, as does Woolf's self-commodification, and the way they both display elements of "cultural capital" at work. Yet both would also benefit from more contextual attention than Latham confers (how, for example, did those of Woolf's class who weren't writers refer to "the masses"?). Finally, I also felt the need for explicit recognition of what it is Latham is, in the end, advocating. Is it writers who write for everybody? Surely not. I'd like it to be writers, snobs or not, who practise their craft in ways that can be appreciated by an ever-increasing, culturally as well as literally aware, proportion of the population, should they deserve it. Oxford or Penguin Classics' 3.50 [pounds sterling] or 3.99 [pounds sterling] ($6.95/$7.95) for texts that may well find their way onto a modern equivalent of Bennett's "bibliography of the nineteenth century" (221) means that affordability, whilst still an issue, when coupled with education, can sidestep many of the means by which the pleasures of the literary marketplace used not so long ago to be hoarded by the few.

(1) James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (London: Penguin, 1999), 4.

Sara Haslam, The Open University
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Author:Haslam, Sara
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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