Monday, January 24, 2005

The photocopier speaks out

Jonathan Yardley's photocopier was in action over the weekend. In his review of a John Grisham novel he almost writes: The prevailing assumption among the literati is still ... that popularity equals mediocrity.

How many times have we read opinions like this? It's like the same article is photocopied to save the 'author' from having to write, let alone think. As usual, no examples are given of members of the literati expressing the assumption.

Yardley - or rather the photocopier - goes on:

The assumption is entirely invalid, since it requires us to dismiss out of hand the immensely popular and notably distinguished work of Graham Greene, Charles Dickens, Eudora Welty, William Styron and Anne Tyler, to name five who come immediately to mind.

Although I think four of the above are pretty mediocre (I don't know anything about the fifth), I wouldn't argue for the assumption; after all my favourite author Thomas Bernhard is a bestseller in Europe. But I do wonder what Yardley is bothered about.

A few writers of what is still pigeonholed as 'genre' fiction have attained a measure of critical respect – Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, et al. – but it is handed out in a grudging or slumming sort of way.

Ah, so that's it. He wants critical respect for 'genre' authors. But why? Would the respect of the literati make any difference? According to Yardley, it's peripheral anyway. When I compare the contrasting market status of Bernhard in Europe with that in the UK and US, it has no impact on my enjoyment of his novels. I can't imagine how it could, unless my enjoyment depended on extra-literary criteria. Currently, I have no need for any individual or group to tell me Bernhard is acceptable or not. So why is Yardley giving such respect to the judgement of an anonymous literati?

There might be an answer in his admittance that the author under review isn't up to his aforementioned five. Does John Grisham rank with these in literary as well as marketplace terms? Of course not, and he might well be the first to agree.

Self-deprecation, you notice, is the first tactic used by many 'genre' fictioners and their fans. It enables the standing gravity of literary judgement to be at once denigated and surreptitiously indulged. In this case, it begs the question: what makes these five better in literary terms? Yardley doesn't say, but clearly he believes there are distinctions to be made. So, if we agree that popularity doesn't equal mediocrity and, its correlate, that popularity doesn't equal superiority, the question then becomes: how can we make the distinction?

It's a difficult and fascinating question, one that goes to the heart of literature and, if one holds one's gaze, to the heart of what it means to be human. More than ever it's a question we must face, standing at a distance from the photocopier. For this reason, it is terrible that those in a privileged position (that is, who are able to devote their working lives to reading to inform and guide the rest of us) avoid the issue. Yet maybe that's why they are in such a position.

(Link courtesy of Maud.)


  1. Anonymous6:06 pm

    Dickens is "mediocre?" Holy cow. What arrogance. Dickens can be melodramatic, yes, as Shaw (I think it was) pointed out in the case of Little Nell; and yes, a hundred and fifty years later, not all his plots still click (such as "A Tale of Two Cities")...but who cares? He's as memorable and as moving and as loved any English novelist in history. If that's "mediocre," then let's have lots more mediocrity, I say.

    Further, the post dings Yardley for speaking highly of popular novels, but doesn't mention that Yardley has the nerve to take on plenty of literary lions -- for instance, he detests "The Old Man and the Sea," which is considered a classic in high schools across the country. A weasel critic wouldn't take that route.

    Kit Stolz
    Upper Ojai

  2. Anonymous3:52 pm

    Kit, is it that tough a call to criticize Hemingway (or his most cynical novel) these days?



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