This book,"" writes Holroyd, a British essayist best known for his critical biographies of Lytton Strachey and Hugh Kingsmill, ""is a complaint -- a forward looking, pessimistic, rhetorical, nostalgic. . . complaint against the conditions imposed on writers by society and against our defensive, over-simplified reaction to these conditions."" To back it up he offers us an omnibus of autobiography, critical biography, literary criticism and a view of the social milieus of England and America, all of it discussed from the bias of what he considers the shabby treatment writers receive from the public, the academy and the publishing establishment. His leitmotif finally is an attack on ""civilization."" Holroyd's tone modulates according to the subject of the essay -- but complaint, whether as advocate or adversary, is the tone throughout, scabrous indignation couched in graceful gentility. There's much to chew on here, and the author is engaging when he champions the works of writers who deserve more recognition: William Gerhardi, Patrick Hamilton, Charlotte Mew. Unfortunately, though, Holroyd lacks the style to bring it off: if on occasion he's brisk, just as often he's thin; he's polemical but without sufficient force; and although there are glints of humor, he could hardly be described as a wit.