Where Garnett improved on the traditional talent-spotting role of publisher’s ‘reader’ was in his enthusiasm and attention to detail. As Smith demonstrates, the aspiring authors who caught his attention could expect to have their work chewed over, their excesses reined in, their published books mentioned in the literary articles he wrote … Well-researched, neatly written and not above the occasional flash of sly humour, The Uncommon Reader is, necessarily, the study of a circle, or rather a milieu, as much as the man who stares doggedly from its cover. Its ultimate destiny, you fear, is to be cherry-picked for information about its famous names. But Smith does her best for Garnett, sees the point of the aesthetic wars he fought and the value of some of his comparative literary judgments.
In her sparkling biography An Uncommon Reader, Helen Smith brilliantly brings to life the emerging aesthetics of contemporary English letters. Born in 1868 into a bookish middle-class Victorian family (his father was a librarian at London’s British Museum), Garnett had an extraordinary influence upon the creation and reception of some key works of the next century … When Garnett got it right, he set off a chain reaction that still reverberates in the novel. Without Conrad, Lawrence and the other early modernists whose writing Garnett rescued from the slush pile, the many works that they in turn influenced—including not only those of Woolf but also those of Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Doris Lessing, Saul Bellow, V.S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Margaret Atwood and J.M. Coetzee, to take an arbitrary sample—might never have existed. That’s quite a legacy.
Smith’s book gives us a perspective on a time when the book industry was undergoing an earlier moment of what we would now call media disruption. As with the birth of the literary agent, which was also a phenomenon of the 1890s, positions like Garnett’s would become crucial as the business pivoted from books to, well, books, but quite unlike those published just a few years earlier … A formidable translator of Tolstoy, Dostoevesky, and Turgenev, Constance Garnett may have exerted as great an influence on the reading tastes of England as did Edward. In a biography otherwise alert to so much of what transpired around Edward, one wishes that Smith had given a more distinct sense of Constance … Smith demonstrates convincingly how Garnett’s instincts proved correct in case after case, from E.M. Forster to John Galsworthy to Arnold Bennett and Edward Thomas.