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Critics are not much liked or admired. There may have been a time when they were a vital part of the ecosystem that is publishing and writing but with the reduction in pages for book reviews they could be added to a list of endangered species. At some time, very soon no doubt, Google will have another algorithm that can do the same task, and simultaneously, in twelve languages.

It’s in that twilight setting of criticism that AA Gill’s win for the Hatchet Job stands out. He won for a critique of Morrissey’s autobiography. This book, published under the imprint of Penguin classics and adored by the middle –aged fan base, was mercilessly and accurately analyzed. The elegance of Gill’s piece lies in the structural analysis of the book. The review is sharp and funny and very well written, but most of all it exposes the qualitative differences in writing song lyrics and writing full length prose.

Morrissey has always been seen as a writer, a serious writer too: his songs held in high esteem for their skill and emotional depth. By using his family name, not his first and ever his full name, he has elevated his status to that of the greats: Shelley, Swinburne, Mallarmé and others. It seems it’s the company he’d prefer for eternity.

Gill’s review peeled apart the considerable gap between the work of those poets and a song lyricist. Song lyrics are not, whether Schubert or The Smiths, good writing in their own terms; they work with the melody and the overall musical effect. It’s a very different skill. When writers turn their hand to something as ‘easy’ as song lyrics they turn out lumpy, turgid, and overly descriptive. Advertising copywriters have discovered, to their disappointment, that condensing all their ideas into an eight word slogan sells soda but can’t sustain a book.

Rock music is fine for such writing. Rising supreme in the canon is a power ballad about May Queens, spring cleans, the promise of long days for tall people, and offers the closing admonition to the listener to be a rock and not to roll. The symbolist synecdoche aside, this song, widely banned in music shops around the world, contains the blunder ‘all that glitters is gold’. Gold glisters, it does not glitter. This obvious error has not been corrected by an editor in the forty years since the composition was first played. Lovers of the song do not care: glitters, glisters, who cares? It’s just some nerdy definition which distracts from playing air guitar.

Lord Byron, the Kanye West of his age, could write a canto of his epic Don Juan and it would become an instant best seller. In a letter to his publisher, who had sent him some books and magazines, while he was in exile in Ravenna, he complained: “Here are Johnny Keats’s piss a-bed poetry […] There is such trash of Keats and the like upon my tables, that I am ashamed to look at them.”

These days we put Byron and Keats and Percy Bysshe together in the same movement. That’s not how he saw it.

Nearly two hundred years later it’s probably true that more people read Keats than Byron. Even so, Byron can give us pause on the vagaries of time and the merits of various writing styles. In a stronger letter he opined further on Keats’s works: “Mr Keats, whose poetry you enquire after, appears to me what I have already said: such writing is a sort of mental masturbation — he is always frigging his Imagination. I don’t mean he is indecent, but viciously soliciting his ideas into a state, which is neither poetry nor anything else but a Bedlam vision produced by raw pork and opium.”

Opium and raw pork; there must be a song by The Doors about that.

Guy Cranswick
17th February 2014