In The Summing Up, published in 1938 when he was sixty-four years old, Somerset Maugham inveighed against literary obscurity and extolled the virtue of clarity (his own peculiar forte). His sentiments were unlikely to endear him to many of the literati of the twentieth century, whose subtlety and complexity, some of them imagined, precluded clodhopping clarity. Maugham explained the source of the obscurity with which they wrote:

The author wraps his meaning in mystery so that the vulgar shall not participate in it. His soul is a secret garden into which the elect may penetrate only after overcoming a number of perilous obstacles.

This is very well said, and if its import were taken seriously half of contemporary literary fiction would never have been published and two-thirds of the teachers of the humanities would find themselves out of a job.

Nevertheless, there is in...