How good was Maugham?

[Posted 5:13 PM by James Panero]

From tomorrow’s New York Times Book Review: our own Brooke Allen on Somerset Maugham.

For all Maugham’s popularity, the real prize eluded him: he was not considered a great writer, and though he kept aiming for the artistic heights represented by Joseph Conrad, his hero, and Henry James, whom he rather despised, he never reached them. What characterizes a great writer, perhaps, is what is left out -- what must be read between the lines -- and on this level Maugham falls short. His reflexive cynicism and aloofness also tainted his work; Raymond Mortimer claimed that no other major writer, not even Hume or Gibbon, had been so detached. Finally, his lack of a distinctive style was held against him, and loudly lamented by the most influential critic of the day, Edmund Wilson. (It was a lack, incidentally, that Maugham cultivated, believing that when an author could be immediately identified by his style, style had degenerated into mannerism.) But Maugham’s strengths, it must be remembered, were very considerable. As William Plomer once felt it necessary to remind highbrow readers, ’’To be a man of the world, to be acquainted with all sorts of different people, to be tolerant, to be curious, to have a capacity for enjoyment, to be the master of a clear and unaffected prose style -- these are great advantages.’’
(n.b. Anthony Daniels’s essay ’How good was Maugham?’ from the February 2004 New Criterion.