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The importance of being important

A man tells his frustrated wife that he is finally going to the doctor to get some Viagra. So he puts on a suit and tie. "What are you getting all dressed up for?" asks the wife. "Well, if I'm impotent I may as well look impotent." The doctor's surgery is closed so he goes to the chemist. "I need some Viagra. Can I get it over the counter?" "Yes, if you take three," replies the chemist, "Walk this way." "If I could walk that way I wouldn't need Viagra."

How did this come up? Well, few "leading writers" were impotent, but they all seem to have been "important". Kingsley Amis was both, although not necessarily at the same time. Michael Henderson writes:

That notable senatorial consort, William Jefferson Clinton, showed us all a clean pair of heels this week when he suddenly became a literary critic. Speaking in Colombia, at an event to honour the 80th birthday of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he described the novelist as "the most important writer of fiction in any language since Faulkner died", and good liberals everywhere cooed, as they tend to.

Is Marquez "important" because he is a great writer, or because he has come to represent something that goes beyond literature? If that is the case Clinton's judgment has got little to do with writing, and is worthless...One sometimes gets the impression that writers such as Marquez are the beneficiaries of western guilt; that they are acclaimed by critics who feel that the study of literature is dangerously Anglocentric, and that foreign names are more exotic. Poor old Barry Unsworth, excellent writer though he is, has been undervalued on this score.

But the world of letters should not be tainted by these considerations. Kingsley Amis put it splendidly in a letter to The Spectator 24 years ago, when somebody was unwise enough to introduce the I-word into the estimation of the work of another novelist, Elizabeth Taylor: "Importance isn't important. Good writing is".

Amis was right, because we should always be on our guard against inflated talk, and approved lists. Some people are genuinely important (Newton, Bach, Kant, Einstein, Churchill) because their actions shaped events, or their thoughts influenced the way in which mankind understands the world, but there are very few, in any culture, at any time. Traditionally some of the happiest debunkers of approved lists are those who belong on it. Evelyn Waugh called Norman Mailer "an American pornographer", yet that insult pales compared with John Osborne's assault on George Bernard Shaw. Riled by Michael Billington's description of Shaw as "the greatest British dramatist since Shakespeare", Osborne fulminated that he "writes like a Pakistani who has learnt English when he was 12 years old in order to become a chartered accountant".

And what's wrong with that? Didn't Shakespeare himself say: "It is the bright day that brings forth the adder"?