Enemies of Promise

Enemies of Promise



The Pequod Review:

Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise is an occasionally interesting work of literary criticism, one that combines Connolly's bitterly candid views of English literature with an autobiographical exploration of the factors that inhibit a writer's creativity. Underlying it all is a desire by Connolly himself to produce an enduring work of literature:


(1) What will have happened to the world in ten years’ time?

(2) To me? To my friends? 

(3) To the books they write? 

Above all to the books — for, to put it another way, I have one ambition — to write a book that will hold good for ten years afterwards. And of how many is that true to-day? I make it ten years because for ten years I have written about books, and because I can say, and this is the gravest warning, that in a short time the writing of books, especially works of the imagination which last that long, will be an extinct art. Contemporary books do not keep. The quality in them which makes for their success is the first to go; they turn over night. Therefore one must look for some quality which improves with time.

His explanation for why so few writers are able to produce a lasting work may not be all that enlightening — he attributes it to a focus on ephemeral concerns such as politics, sex and conventional measures of success — but his book nonetheless has some strong observations. Here is an especially astute insight on writers:

Sloth in writers is always a symptom of an acute inner conflict, especially that laziness which renders them incapable of doing the thing which they are most looking forward to. The conflict may or may not end in disaster, but their silence is better than the overproduction which must so end and slothful writers such as Johnson, Coleridge, Greville, in spite of the nodding poppies of conversation, morphia and horse-racing, have more to their credit than Macaulay, Trollope or Scott. To accuse writers of being idle is a mark of envy or stupidity — La Fontaine slept continually and scarcely ever opened his mouth; Baudelaire, according to Dr. Laforgue, feared to perfect his work because he feared the incest with his mother which was his perfect fulfillment. Perfectionists are notoriously lazy and all true artistic indolence is deeply neurotic; a pain not a pleasure.

Later, he has observations on human nature more generally:

Success is a kind of moving staircase, from which an artist, once on, has great difficulty in getting off.


All charming people have something to conceal, usually their total dependence on the appreciation of others.