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This item is taken from PN Review 106, Volume 22 Number 2, November - December 1995.

The defining poet-critic of his generation, Donald Davie died of cancer in September at the age of 73. He was among the closest of PNR's friends and collaborators: his loss is grievous to us and to many of our readers. This is an abbreviated version of the obituary which the editor of PNR wrote for the Independent:

Donald Davie's writing, poetry and prose, possesses wonderful clarity of argument and formal purpose, exemplary even in its polemical forms. He was a lucid dissenter: engagement with literature and language is the crucial engagement with culture, and he found himself out of sympathy with cultural and political reaction quite as much as he did with those who thought the arts of writing were a doddle. He was impatient with over-selling as with selling short, and his endeavour as a teacher was to bring the reader close to the text, the writer close to the core experience, the subject, of the poem, he or she was writing.

Born in Barnsley in 1922, he remained true to the landscapes and the accents of his formative years. In his autobiography These the Companions (1982), he recalls his Paptist boyhood, his modest chapel family, and those ingredients which went to the making of his distinctive Englishness, remote from the southern rural and patrician form as from the Lawrentian, yet rich in new possibilities. He concluded his life a devout Anglican.

From Barnsley he earned a scholarship to Cambridge, but passed through the Navy first and saw service in Arctic Russia, teaching himself the language and preparing for his notable translations of Pasternak and his writings on Russian and Polish literature collected in Slavic Excursions (1990). In the last year of the war he married Doreen John, his staunchest friend, severest and most generous critic.

He read English at Cambridge, going on to lecture at Trinity College, Dublin, for seven years. There his early critical books, Purity oj Diction in English Verse (1952) and Articulate Energy (1955) were written, and his first collection of poems, Brides of Reason (1955) appeared. This was an almost unnaturally orderly beginning, defining for himself and for his generation a stance against the excesses of the 1940s: 'there is no necessary connection between the poetic vocation on the one hand, and on the other exhibitionism, egoism, and licence.' His was the clearest and most insistent voice of the early Movement and, with Larkin's, it will prove the most durable.

But Davie was not content with what came to seem a Romantic adherence to Augustan precepts. He had read Pasternak and he was discovering Ezra Pound. In 1958 he returned to Cambridge, and in 1964 helped to bring into being the University of Essex with its radical approach to literary studies. His time there ended painfully in the debacles of 1968. He became professor of English at Stanford, California, following Yvor Winters, whose work he introduced to English readers. Later he went to Vanderbilt, Tennessee. He never lost sight of Britain, addressing his essays and his poems to English readers. In 1988 he returned to Silverton, Devon, to a fully engaged retirement.

After his first two collections of poems he became restless. The work of Pound, of the Black Mountain Poets and others, stirred his formal imagination, and with A Sequence for Francis Parkman (1961) he broke new ground, employing the cento form and drawing history in a vividly present form. Essex Poems (1969), written out of the intense intellectual and political turbulence of the period, is his first major collection, and it was followed by others: Six Epistles to Eva Hesse (1970), The Shires (1974, disliked by critics at the time for its English modernism), In the Stopping Train (1977, his most vulnerably candid book), Three for Water-Music(1981, an oblique homage to three landscapes, and to Pound, Eliot, Bunting and other writers of whom he was made), and his most original and challenging volume, To Scorch or Freeze (1988, in which he revisits the Psalms). 'In all but what seems inchoate,' he wrote, 'we quiz the past, to see it straight/Requires a form just out of reach.' He thought he had exhausted his Muse, but two months ago he sent me a new poem, a meditation on the 'Our Father', which will appear in the next issue of PNR.

In parallel with his poetry went his work as critic, advocate and anthologist. In The Late Augustans (1958) he began the task of dusting down the eighteenth century, and in 1961 his advocacy of Sir Walter Scott followed. Among his most important prose books are Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor (1964, still a crucial account of the author), Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (1973, a book which put the cat among the pigeons of a literary orthodoxy blind to its constraining secularism), Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric (1986, a book which radicalises our sense of the lyric and its limitations in the latter years of this century), and Under Briggflatts: A History of Poetry in Great Britain 1960-1988 (1989, a classic 'historical' engagement). There is much else, and the prose works exist in a Collected Edition, the final volume of which, Church, Chapel, and the Unitarian Conspiracy: Essays in Dissent, is just published.

His impact as a critic will prove central and durable: his poems will survive in their formal diversity, intellectual richness and rigour, and emotional honesty. His legacy to my generation includes his presence, now withdrawn. It is the astonishing letters, the meetings with the 'benign curmudgeon' I will most miss, the squaring up, the concessions, the larger battles, the sense of a vocation worth the candle, worth the fight. It was possible to visit and talk for six or seven hours with, at the end of it, a sense of time suspended. Always dialogue, never pontification; always a moving out, and out. Always addition, always growth. As he wrote: 'Needing to know is always how to learn,/Needing to see brings sightings.'

Once upon a time, the publisher was the bookseller. Then publisher and bookseller split apart and conflicting interests developed. For a century the publisher held the whip hand; then the bookseller discovered the power to force publishers to give service, discount, support, and to take returns of unsold stock, diminishing risk and increasing margins. Then briefly authors came into their own: courted, paid huge advances, wheeled out in public, personalising the product.

But on a dark Tuesday in September 1995 the balance was dramatically changed: newspapers, radio and television gave prime space to an accord forged between the giant interests of publishing and bookselling, an accord whose effects on our literary culture will be deep and lasting. The Net Book Agreement (NBA), described in PNR when last under threat, defended successfully before a Parliamentary committee and the European Commission in recent months, is dead. Three publishers and a chain brought it down after almost a century. The tabloids promised cheaper books. Regret was expressed in more serious papers because the NBA had made it possible for independent bookshops to exist in a commercial environment dominated by large interests.

France had an NBA. It was rescinded. Twenty per cent of booksellers went out of business. It was reinstated after fundamental damage to the delicate ecology of French publishing. British publishing and bookselling are more exposed. France is the centre of French-language publishing, but the United States calls the tune for English-language publishing. On the Continent, American and British books do unequal battle. Importation from Continental sources of cheap American editions into the British market, legal under EC rules whatever territorial arrangements are agreed between British and American publishers, will affect the British publishing base. But this is a tiny problem beside the emerging verities of tomorrow's book trade.

Cheaper books? Cheaper best-sellers - for a time. To discount titles steeply in ASDA or WHS, prices will have to rise. And not only the prices of best-sellers which have subsidised 'mid-list' and academic titles. All prices will rise - so that they can fall. Cheap Classics may persist for a time, but new fiction, poetry, critical editions and critical books, the grist of the literary mill, anything that falls within copyright, will carry a higher price. The number of new titles will decline. There will be fewer bookshops. The balance sheet is stark from various points of view.


Best-selling authors will sell more copies. But publishing contracts conventionally give authors full royalty on copies sold at a discount of 49% or less; with 50% or more, royalty is halved or related to a percentage of net receipts. If discounts to the trade average more than 50%, which they will need to do for discounting to occur, the author's income per title sold will be halved; unless sales more than double, authors will lose from the arrangement.

Authors whose books sell more modestly will suffer a decline in royalty income, their books discounted without substantial increase in unit sales.

New and marginal writers will find it harder to break into print; they may have to accept once more the harsh terms of earlier times, surrendering hard-won concessions to publishers. working at reduced margins. Academic publishing, ungenerous in the extreme when it comes to royalty, will become even more so.

Large publishers will negotiate bulk deals for best sellers with the chains, wholesalers and supermarkets which, in exchange for deep discount, will free them from returns. Books will be priced up in order to sustain 40/50% discount to the book buyer. Non-lead titles, those which big outlets find less attractive, will be printed in reduced runs at higher prices.

Smaller publishers will have to give higher discounts or lose access to the major chains. It will be necessary for them to think more than twice before undertaking innovative work, the kind which catches on gradually; risk will be minimised. It is predicted that a number of small independent publishers will cease trading.


Since large discounts are given in response to substantial stock orders, the smaller independent booksellers and bookselling chains will be unable to compete in discount to customers with the large chains. If 20% of bookselling turnover is derived from hard- and paperback bestsellers (as is the case with most academic bookshops), and if most booksellers work at an average net margin of 3%, it is obvious that shops without clout will lose custom and begin to close. Whatever the quality of service given, price will be the determining factor for most book buyers.

It is the best sellers that draw people into bookshops in the first place. Having purchased their Taylor Bradford, Grishamor Archer, they notice on a table or shelf nearby the latest book of experimental verse from Cambridge and exclaim, I must have that as well!' When, instead of visiting their local independent bookseller, they get their Archer with the artichokes at ASDA, chances are that the experimental anthology will remain unsold. Or unpublished. And the bookseller who at one time would stock such a recherché publication will not risk it any more, or will not be there to take the risk.

Book buyers

Those who are best-seller addicts will save money in coming months, though recommended prices will adjust in time so that the discounted book will carry roughly the same price as it did before. Those who are mid-list readers will find fewer bookshops and a narrowing choice of books at higher prices even within those shops which have hitherto offered range and quality of service.

Fewer independent bookshops, a more homogeneous and predictable stock in the chains; fewer publishers, a greater hyping of new titles and a struggle to create market leaders; poorer authors with a steeper hill to climb towards their readership: in a single Tuesday in September, the British book trade was stood on its head. When it rights itself it will be a very different creature. Certainly the argument against imposing VAT on books has been weakened by the publishing industry itself colluding in the 'commodification' of its product.

This item is taken from PN Review 106, Volume 22 Number 2, November - December 1995.

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