Although it has no central thesis as such, DJ Taylor’s compendious and dryly entertaining study of English ‘literary life’ since the end of the First World War concerns itself with two related questions: how can literary culture be defined, and how does that culture reflect a wider ‘public taste’? Drawing on an encyclopaedic knowledge of 20th century literature, Taylor’s astute readings and his obvious fascination with the logistical nuts and bolts of how books are made and sold, combine to produce a text that is as much a social or economic history of the last century as an account of changing literary styles and fashions.

‘Cultural change’, Taylor tells us, ‘is rarely a straightforwardly linear process’. Rather than presenting this change as a strict progression of artistic fads and movements, he uses a series of case studies and connected essays to show the development of literary culture in the last hundred years as something more akin to an overlapping relay race, with late-Victorian belles lettrists like George Saintsbury and Sir Edmund Gosse surviving well into the period of high modernism, and 1950s Angry Young Men like Kingsley Amis commanding sizeable advances into the 1990s. If broad adjustments in public taste are generally responsive to wider social and economic factors though, as much as to the guidance of the writers themselves or academic critics like FR Leavis, then Taylor argues that the best way to address them is to examine the social and economic conditions in which literature is actually made.

Drawing aside the wizard’s curtain to show the average English writer of his or her period feverishly pulling the levers and pumping the pedals to keep their career on track, The Prose Factory is concerned as few other texts are with the basic rates of return in the literary life, and with the extra-curricular work writers have always had to take on to keep that career going. The wild disparity between what high-end figures like Arnold Bennett could earn from his journalism (£22,000 in 1929, nearly a million pounds today) and what George Orwell was subsisting on from humble book reviewing (£2 or £3 a week) is truly eye-opening, but Taylor demonstrates that the need to make a living has rarely been satisfied by the production of novels alone. In the post-war era a significant number of English writers also sought work as university lecturers; in the 1970s a tranche of young writers like Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Peter Ackroyd worked as literary journalists. More than just a fastidious interest in bills and invoices, Taylor’s examinations here demonstrate that the writing of fiction has rarely been a going concern, and that with few exceptions not many practitioners have ever made big money from it. At the same time, apart from a brief blip in the 1980s, attributable perhaps to a more streamlined distribution method, the injection of American money into the industry and the establishment of Waterstones on the high street, the ‘general reader’ has never been particularly interested in "expensively produced hardback novels of a literary cast of the kind reviewed in newspapers and weekly magazines", regardless of how culturally influential they may seem in retrospect. Most young writers now, Taylor argues, have been "thoroughly institutionalised" in the university creative writing system in order to earn a living, "turned into one of literature’s civil servants" in a "glorified employment bureau". As Taylor suggests, because the literary mainstream has become utterly fragmented and there is now no authoritative arbiter of taste occupying the position of a JC Squire or even a TS Eliot, there is nothing for young writers to kick against; literary culture has instead become a more staid, institutionally subsidised affair, staffed by earnest practitioners keen to avoid offending their colleagues in the interests of workplace harmony. The rancorous Georgians vs. Modernists battles of the 1920s are unthinkable today, as are the acid personal vendettas of the Sitwells or the iconoclastic book reviewers of the 1970s. As books have for perhaps the first time become genuinely cheap to buy, the balance of industrial power has shifted from the triumvirate of writer, publisher and literary critic, to distributors and wholesalers like Amazon.

The Prose Factory is a fascinating and oddly touching examination of the often ramshackle way something as central to human identity as literature is made and funded. Peopled with rogues and eccentrics, perhaps the most representative figure in the book is the endearing journeyman Alec Waugh, elder brother of the infinitely more talented Evelyn. Developing from an enfant terrible when his 1917 public school novel The Loom of Youth was published, to a solid novel-a-year professional in the 1930s, Waugh was reduced to writing hack-work company histories by the 1950s. Then, utterly unexpectedly, his 1956 novel Island in the Sun became a major best-seller. Serialised in American magazines, optioned for Hollywood and taken up by the Reader’s Digest, Waugh made a quarter of a million dollars in a month. For whatever reason the book chimed with the times, and it changed Waugh’s life. Today, everything he wrote is out of general print.