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The Bad Side of Books: Selected Essays by D. H. Lawrence

Bad Side of Books Cover
The Bad Side of Books: Selected Essays by D. H. Lawrence. Edited by Geoff Dyer.

The bad side of books, Lawrence says, is “the beastly marketable chunk of published volume,” the “miserable tome” as an object, “the actual paper and rag volume of any of my works,” “a bone which every dog presumes to pick with me” that “delivers me to the vulgar mercies of the world.”[1] A reader might point out that publications also saved Lawrence from some vulgarities, but a good rant is much too fun to interrupt. He declares that a worthy book “flowers once, and seeds, and is gone. First editions or forty-first are only the husks of it”; no room here for academic carping about the necessity and pleasures of rereading (211). A book is an idea that travels entire from author to audience transforming the latter in a flash, and readers of Lawrence will hardly be surprised at such statements from his essay, “The Bad Side of Books” (1924). Having worked himself into a froth over many perceived slights including his family’s astonishment at his success, publishers who did not pay him for Sons and Lovers (1913), and “the impromptu opinions by elderly authors” he did not solicit, Lawrence demands that we understand books as ideas not objects. Are we readers part of “the vast public” to whom “the autumn morning is only a sort of stage background against which they can display their own mechanical importance,” or do we let sensual impressions really affect us? After all the bombast and despite the tangled metaphysics (“every man who struggles with his own soul in mystery,” etc.), this conclusion is unexpectedly touching. There are many appropriate objections to Lawrence’s proclamations. We might even fault his memory, and in a rare editorial note Geoff Dyer finds that Lawrence acknowledged receipt of payment for his novel in a letter to his US publisher in 1914 despite his published gripe. Still, certain passages from the essays in The Bad Side of Books beguile the most resistant reader into enjoying the outrage and disgust that quotidian life inspires in the writer.

This volume, collected and sparingly edited by Dyer for reissue by the New York Review of Books in 2019, seeks to “rebalance” the influence of the novels on Lawrence’s reputation by bringing together writings “that are considered ancillary or minor” and “might be called essays” (xi). Thirty six “harder-to-find pieces” are presented chronologically from the opening “Christs in the Tirol” (1912), a charming sketch of wayside shrines in the Alps, to the last “Introduction to The Grand Inquisitor by F. M. Dostoievsky” (1930), which appropriately lends its own final line to the volume: “Let them be glad they have found the truth again” (xiii, 471). Indeed, there is a sense in which this reissue marks a broader interest in modernist studies to revisit our most well-known texts and find their truths, again – or more accurately, to revisit standard authors and understand them anew in broader or different contexts. Dyer includes Rebecca West’s “Elegy” (1930) for Lawrence, a memorial that reminds us how divisive he was for contemporaries, and how much remains to discuss about his aesthetic uses of negative affects like disgust and anger juxtaposed against sudden turns towards the sublime.

Dyer appears to pose a formal question as well, contending that calling these pieces “essays” is to reduce them. They are best understood as sensations that “flicker and blaze into ideas that are presented as though they are data from some instrument calibrated to a pitch of receptivity so extreme as to be abnormal or even pathological” (xii). Despite Dyer’s editorial flair and my own preexisting sympathy towards this beautifully lush green book, however, I am not sure Lawrence consciously expanded the essay format in ways that depart from the development of the form in English. Dyer claims that his editorial decisions were based upon “personal preferences held in check or complemented by the need to be responsibly comprehensive and receptive to the probable needs of students” (xiii–xiv), but I was left wishing for more work footnoting and indexing that would help first time students. Dyer claims that these essays are the pinnacle of Lawrence’s prose; but having read every word of the collection, what emerges is a clearer sense of the qualities of the novels, short stories, and poetry which, pace Dyer, one is not tempted to abandon just yet. The Bad Side of Books is an entertaining circuit through some of Lawrence’s most strongly held (and ill-thought out) ideas. Reading these essays adds shades of nuance to our critical understanding of his body of work. But, I am not sure as an instructor and probable assigner of this text, why a student should toil through five essays about the novel written from 1922–1925 to grasp Lawrence’s peculiar triangulation between the written text and the interior lives of author and reader. 

Still, reissues by important popular presses are crucial for literary studies and only a peevish reader would bother to read Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage (1997) about Lawrence’s influence on him, as I did. Dyer’s view of Lawrence is always about Dyer’s own writerly sprezzatura, and although Lawrence’s essayistic he, we, they, and even sometimes she or it are also typically centered on Lawrence, there is a distinct difference between Dyer’s image of his hero, and the older writer in his own words. I do not much care for Dyer’s image of Lawrence but this volume highlights some reasons why readers continue to turn to Lawrence—and why we might do so more with his writing in and outside our classrooms. One episode from Dyer’s memoir is exemplary here – he lives in Rome with his partner, we are told, and is struggling to write his study about Lawrence (oh, the writerly life, sighs an academic from the depths of the semester). Rome in the summer is so hot that Dyer is forced to cadge a holiday off some wealthy friends to stay in their villa on a Greek island. The big joke in this episode is that Dyer carried a heavy copy of Lawrence’s Complete Poems with him and only read a volume of Rilke’s letters while on the island.[2] He also used up most of his time there playing tennis or doing nothing, before getting into a driving accident and returning to Rome (Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage, 24–28). In this sense, I suppose, Dyer quite literally wrestled with D. H. Lawrence(’s books) in the form of luggage, as the subtitle of his memoir claims. But how Lawrentian is Dyer, or put another way, how closely does Dyer’s version of Lawrence hew to the essays in The Bad Side of Books?

We see in the essays how excessively class conscious Lawrence is, determined to hold up his end when eating and drinking with wealthier or more profligate companions. An impecunious man, he loves out-snobbing the snobs. He does not seem to mind hot weather. He is also generous with friends who might not deserve it. The seventy-eight page essay, “The Memoir of Maurice Magnus,” is about a titular friend who died destitute in Malta, entrusting his debts to Lawrence despite a somewhat flimsy acquaintance. Lawrence describes many episodes where “M—” annoyed him, but his shock at Magnus taking his own life is tempered by a determination to let his action stand without judgement. “Who dares humiliate the dead with excuses for their living? I hope I may do M— justice,” he writes (Lawrence, Bad Side of Books, 158). As the introduction to his friend’s posthumously published book, the essay is a lengthy attempt by a man who has no money to generate some value for an unknown writer. Dyer notices Lawrence’s impulsivity but not his old-fashioned values or the genteel sense of responsibility that leavens his comments about personal freedom. Dyer writes in Out of Sheer Rage, “Research! Research! The very word is like a bell, tolling the death and the imminent turning to dust of whichever poor sod is being researched. Spare me. Spare me the drudgery of systematic examinations and give me the lightning flashes of those wild books in which there is no attempt to cover the ground thoroughly or reasonably” (Dyer, 103). I can understand criticism about board exams but reasonably and thoroughly covering the ground sounds fun to me, and reveals that although Dyer seems to take his partners as much for granted as Lawrence took Frieda, our critical sense of the writer extends beyond that of the editor of this volume.

This reissued collection does reinforce a view of Lawrence that is culled from his more famous work. His acute sympathy with nonhuman life and proto-ecocritical imagination; his abrasive views of humanity overall; his humor and disgust all tumble over each other in quicker succession than he allows himself in fiction. I began making a list as I read of what Lawrence loves: small songbirds, pine trees, Italy, whistling, Thomas Hardy, Taos, Timsy the cat, his mother’s ghost, Sergeant Mellor the policeman, certain flowers, Hemingway. But I was quickly waylaid because what Lawrence hates is more entertaining and pulls the reader’s attention away from his attempts to explain god or women. My list changed accordingly: the titular essay makes clear the publishing industry is hateful; extractive mines of any kind are hellish whether in Northern England or New Mexico; Tolstoy and Thomas Mann are both regrettable for different reasons; Paris, Germany, London, all awful. The First World War is a real calamity, serious and dreadful; Lawrence inhabits a world forever changed by trauma, grown silent as Walter Benjamin also later claims in “The Storyteller” (1936). But whereas Benjamin thinks the novel no longer suitable to contain modern experience, Lawrence is absolutely committed to the genre despite his own felicity with short stories, poems, and yes, essays. My list continues: Lawrence hates porcupines. He gets cold one evening and borrows a grand fur coat from a friend; “I grinned inside the coat, detesting the best hotels, best shops, and best overcoats” (Lawrence, Bad Side of Books, 100). He is comically unable to find suitable endings for most of his essays, usually adding wild asides, non sequiturs, or angry tangents; implicitly, therefore, he also hates conclusions.

But the essays are not all amusing, and Dyer does not edit out the truly gross statements that Lawrence sometimes allows himself. For instance, he hates Englishmen and imperialism but not for the usual reasons. In 1924–25, during a rare trip back home, he finds English citizens conceited, “[j]ust damn superior to everything” and the government too meddlesome for upholding the rights of Black Jamaican railway workers against railroad moguls (217). In a paragraph laced with racial slurs, Lawrence locates too much legal sympathy for “the bottom dog,” “May he devour us all. Same story from India, from Egypt, from China” (219). In another essay about this trip, Lawrence reprises the complicated warmth he shows his hometown in Sons and Lovers; and then, grasping for a conclusion, he pivots to declare, “Hopeless life should be put to sleep, the idiots and the hopeless sick and the true criminal” (301). I am unable to reconcile such lines with his sensitivity towards hurt birds and dogs. Readers of Lawrence know that his warmth and charm (and performative anger that invites us to laugh along) exist alongside real ugliness of mind that stems, perhaps, from frustrations with his own recurring bodily weaknesses. I find Lawrence to be culturally sensitive within limits, for instance when he writes about a Native American festival in Taos that he was not allowed to enter: “I was no enemy of theirs; far from it. The voice… was not for my ears. Its language was unknown to me. And I did not wish to know. It was enough to hear the sound issuing [from within their tent]” (171). To me, this is the contemporary equivalent of privileged people who know that not every conversation focalizes them, and that some spaces are justly out of bounds to them. Lawrence’s writing about New Mexico often reinforces a false divide between indigenous communities who live untouched by Western Civ and those who have adapted their ways to modernity, reserving his disgust for the latter. But even knowing this, it was jarring and frankly difficult to read certain of his essays straight through without putting down The Bad Side of Books with aversion. The venom he shows towards his countrymen as a whole is matched only by the hatred he shows disabled and certain nonwhite bodies.

The essays, being short, invite critical and pedagogic interventions that do not rely upon reverence or even liking for the writer. They clarify the casual perniciousness of misanthropy, racism, ableism—Lawrence presents his conclusions without seeming to find them outlandish. These are the parts when some, any, editorial intervention might have helped a student new to Lawrence. Instead, the only consolation that the NYRB volume provides is through its “Notes on the Texts” section, which is simply a list of where the essays were taken from. That list informed me that both essays discussed above remained unpublished during his lifetime, perhaps indicating through his failure to place them in the usual magazines that his views were unwelcome even in the historical 1920s. The effusion of strong opinions places Lawrence among purveyors of literary disgust like Thomas Bernhard, Georges Bataille, and Sartre in Nausea. I dare say he would make an interesting interlocutor for more recent writers of disgust like Eugene Marten and Ottessa Moshfegh, too.

Throughout reading and writing this piece, I kept wondering, why reprint these essays? Why read them? I have no answer for the first question, although there is a heavy irony in considering the copyright implications and earning potential of this edition given that their writer boldly declared, “Mammon, I hate you and am going to push you off the face of this earth” (450). I have tried to address the second question throughout, for better and for worse locating some critical value in Lawrence’s writerly honesty.


[1] D. H. Lawrence, The Bad Side of Books, ed. Geoff Dyer (New York: NYRB, 2019), 208.

[2] Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence (North Point Press 1998), 18–22.