This month's column in Timeout (mid-May) is going to be on Maugham's Cakes and Ale (1930), a book which itself muses on the price of literary fame, the vicissitudes of being a novelist and what makes for a good writer. Maugham, as the various quotes already blogged demonstrate, muses on ideas of quality and longevity. His novelist characters (Alroy Kea, the narrator, and Edward Driffield) represent three very different types: successful (but cheerfully middling in quality); cynical and withdrawn; and eminent. Their various qualities give the lie to the fact of transcendent and uncontextualised quality - they are jobbing writers, self-conscious about their profession and in many ways mocking those (critics, readers, the reader of the novel itself) who would see more in their novels than is there.
Maugham's matter-of-fact narrator, when discussing the qualities which have contributed to Driffield's literary fame, has this to say about beauty: 'No one has been able to explain why the Doric temple of Paestum is more beautiful than a glass of cold beer except by bringing in considerations that have nothing to do with beauty [...] Let us face it: beauty is a bit of a bore'. In saying such things he suggests that popularity and critical acclaim (and literary production) are social, cultural phenomena; books are good because we make them so, or because we impute something particular to them. In the end, they are as good or as useful to us as a glass of cold beer.
Maugham's urbane reductionism flies in the face of notions of genius and sublimity. He was a professional writer in the style of Trollope - knocking out his paragraphs with a clear sense of purpose rather than an address to higher ideals of beauty and humanist perfectibility. He was a cynic, but in realistic rather than negative fashion.