Pandora's Handbag: Adventures in the Book World by Elizabeth Young

John Sears

Elizabeth Young is ultimately a book lover's reviewer rather than a conventional industry hack.

Pandora's Handbag

Publisher: Serpent's Tail
Subtitle: Adventures in the Book World
Author: an Introduction by Will Self
Price: £8.99 (UK)
Display Artist: Elizabeth Young, with an Introduction by Will Self
Length: 384
UK publication date: 2003-03

"I cannot think of anything wise or deep to say, here at the end, so I will just stop." With these words Elizabeth Young concludes the epilogue to this posthumous collection of her prose writings, reviews, interviews and columns. Young died in 2001, and with her the worlds of literature and the arts lost one of their most acerbic, creative and honest critics. Young has quiet rightly been described by The Times as "the late high priestess of Post-Modern lit crit", and Pandora's Box offers some indication of the extent of her wisdom and depth of critical engagement with the contemporary culture in which she found herself living.

Young's range of reference and the breadth of her reading shine through all the pieces here, each of which is prefaced by after-the-event comments that introduce the essay and aid the reader's orientation. Sometimes her writing can be almost unfairly abrasive, but the consistently genuine responses that she offers mean that each piece comes up as a gem of committed criticism. Young tirelessly notices the significant new thing, pays attention to the unjustly neglected old thing, and looks harder than other people at the commonly neglected thing, in order repeatedly to shake up the conventional reader's conventional truisms, and to expose how deeply orthodoxy penetrates even the most ostensibly 'radical' of worlds.

Her relentless championing of Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho is the most conspicuous of a series of causes that she pursues here. From her initial review of the novel in City Limits in 1991, Young is writing against the flow of conventionally skeptical critical opinion, insisting on the novel's worth and attempting to establish a set of parameters within which that worth can be measured:

Like Scott Fitzgerald, Ellis takes a risk in trying to capture the spirit of a decade. Will the book endure? Brand-names date before the ink is dry but this very fact underscores Ellis' hellish vision of the unappeasable hungers that drive us and our ever more extreme, tormenting desires, designed never to be sated. [...] In literary terms the book is outstanding as a portrait, an indictment of the anorexic soul of the eighties. It demands that we attempt moral redefinition.

Young returns to Ellis' novel much later in Pandora's Handbag in an undated piece on 'Censorship'. Here she notes that "feminists...provide the only new twists in the censorship debate", and "fortunately there are women novelists who are able to broaden the debate beyond any simplistic feminist imperatives", citing Jane Delynn and Mary Gaitskill as examples. In contrast, her abrasiveness is in evidence when she discusses "bafflingly popular" writers like Alice Hoffman or Ann Patchett ("This is a nice, too nice book, bland and frothy as a competent restaurant soufflé and just about as slow.").

Young consistently opts for the marginal or excluded figure to support her own critical self-positionings -- she is, for example, a fan of writers like Alasdair Gray, Alan Warner and Irvine Welsh, thereby establishing an ideological solidarity with two generations of Scottish literature and their implicit (and sometimes explicit) anti-Englishness. She is as comfortable celebrating Derek Raymond's "hellishly bleak and desolate novels" in an ostensible interview with the swamp-rock band Gallon Drunk as she is profiling and interviewing Terry Pratchett, whose attitude towards what he describes as "literary wankers in London" is, one feels, shared by his interviewer.

Elizabeth Young is ultimately a book-lover's reviewer rather than a conventional industry hack. She has a reassuring contempt for normality, and can, when necessary, display impressive credentials (for example in a short piece on The Clash, "the only lastingly listenable punk band"). She can review academic tomes on Situationism (Sadie Plant's The Most Radical Gesture) alongside such ruthlessly anti-academic writers as Stewart Home; her comments on American conspiracy theories ("So what does this farrago of folk-art signify?") are as pithy and incisive as her reviews of English artists like Dora Carrington and Christopher Wood.

Above all, Young's value as both literary critic and cultural commentator resides in her absolute faith in the abilities of new, young artists to produce work of lasting value, and her willingness to invest her own time and energies in drawing her readers' attentions to these artists. Such qualities are, ultimately, forms of intellectual bravery, as the critic must nail her colours to various unproven masts of creativity, and continuously reassert the courage of her convictions. Will Self's short and highly crafted introduction to this volume offers some background to Young's life, but also draws attention to the vital up-to-date-ness of her writings:

Reading this book is an opportunity, for anyone who has been a spectator of the last few decades (as opposed to merely living), to mount a myriad of aesthetic and critical trigonometric points and from these to join Liz in the act of surveying the territory.

Self also worries, in the same way as Young does over Ellis' novel, about the market for this book ("I wonder who the hell will read this book? And I wonder whether it will sell?"). Such uncertainty comes with the territory of the immediately contemporary, which is always shifting, uncertain, deceptive. Young's vibrant, honest prose sets a standard in the establishment of the authentic gut response as a viable critical method, and, on the evidence of the pieces collected in Pandora's Handbag, her judgement is unerring.

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