Get over your literary snobbery – all good stories are worth reading
Highbrow fiction isn’t superior to popular fiction - despite what some ‘superior’ types say
Cecelia Ahern, Holly White and John Boyne at the announcement of the shortlist for the An Post Irish Book Awards 2018
Just after my latest book Minor Mythologies as Popular Literature was published I was delighted to find Sheila O’Flanagan writing along similar lines in The Irish Times. Her piece entitled “Nothing should get in the way of a good story” delighted and reassured me, because as a critic I have approached the subject from the other direction. Like O’Flanagan, I argue that academic snobbery has put popular literature in a ghetto where it is unreasonably labelled as, somehow, inferior to “highbrow” fiction. In fact the very word “popular” suggests that it is beneath critical contempt.
In the days when people travelled by train, it was called “railway fiction”. Today, it’s “airport literature” and critics look down – or maybe up – their noses at it. Booksellers such as Eason and WH Smith have made a fortune out of this literature, from Agatha Christie to Ian Fleming and more recently Maeve Binchy, John Connolly and O’Flanagan herself.
As a schoolboy, I accepted what FR Leavis said in his influential The Great Tradition – that novelists such as Henry James, George Eliot or DH Lawrence were what we should be reading, and everything else was not. Luckily for my future as both reader and critic, I came to realise how utterly elitist he was. His wife, Queenie Leavis, was even worse: for her radio, television and the cinema were for the uneducated, weak-minded majority who knew no better. What they enjoyed reading was a danger to “highbrow” literature.
Her condemnation of the cinema made me realise how much we owe, emotionally speaking, to film. For every reader who has encountered Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there are millions who have met the modern Prometheus or vampire on the screen, thus popularising the deepest issues: how is life created? Can evil ever be defeated?
So I’ve looked at the way “popular” literature has become even more popular by appealing through the lens to the millions who will never pick up a novel by John le Carré or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. As a schoolboy I was told that George Eliot and Henry James were “difficult” so, predictably, I didn’t read them. I was only converted to the books by Ben Kingsley’s terrific screen portrayal of Silas Marner and Nicole Kidman’s electrifying personification of Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady.
All literature is readable and should be read, whether it’s Marian Keyes or Len Deighton or George Eliot
The Leavis influence was immense. As a child, travelling regularly by train from London to Bristol, I was given The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or, even more appropriately, 4.50 from Paddington, and enjoyed the thrill of discovery and admired Agatha Christie’s skill at weaving a plotline. I didn’t think it was shameful, but when I studied the Leavises I believed for a time that this was somehow “unworthy”. Theirs must have been a joyless household, devoted to being correct at all costs. One cannot imagine them indulging in the tango or the Charleston, not even metaphysically.
In the US, Harold Bloom has been even more dismissive: his criteria for admission to The Western Canon are so prohibitive that if you aren’t reading Dante or Shakespeare you’re probably wasting your time. His bête noire is what he calls “the School of Resentment” led by Alice Walker and including blacks, hispanics and, worst of all, women. Africans, Bloom says, shouldn’t be writing plays about their own experiences when they already have Shakepeare who is, apparently, more relevant.
All this is why I decided to write Minor Mythologies, which argues that all literature is readable and should be read, whether it’s Marian Keyes or Len Deighton or George Eliot. What the joyless custodians of the canon (O’Flanagan’s “gatekeepers”) seem to forget is that there are only a few basic plots because there are only a few basic human emotions, and these are the origin of all storylines, from Aesop and Hans Christian Andersen right through to War and Peace and Doctor Zhivago.
What seems to confuse the critics is that whatever we write – novels, poems, biographies, histories, or dissertations on astrophysics – is a revelation of our own personality, our anxieties, hopes, fears and lusts, because when we set out to write a book we are setting out in search of part of ourselves.
I wouldn’t have written about Brian Friel or Lawrence Durrell if they had not, in their lives and works, offered me a chance to discover myself. Friel (who became a good friend) wrote: “You delve into a particular corner of yourself that’s dark and uneasy, and you articulate the confusions and the unease of that particular period.” In doing so, the writer also helps the reader to discover his or her own “confusions and unease” and possibly to come to terms with them.
In the 8th century BC the Greek writer Hesiod offered his explanation of the Big Bang theory. Today, the scientists at Cern in Geneva are still working on the same problem. And what is that problem? An explanaton of how we got here, a search for origins and meaning, which is at the heart of every detective story, every biography and every poem which tries to sing about love or death. To deny this is to put literature in some kind of glass jar where no-one can exploit it or question it. I sometimes wonder if the more po-faced critics were born without an umbilical cord, completely house-trained and reading Proust.
As “gatekeepers” they actually lack the courage to go through that gate and see what’s on the other side.
Life is a narrative which takes us by surprise. So too should a good read. And a popular novel is more likely to make you sit up and ask questions than something “difficult” on your university syllabus. It’s not merely snobbery that corrals some “great” writers into a safe zone, uncontaminated by the masses of the unwashed, it’s also the fear of the unknown, a panic in the face of their own emotions. Popular literature often gives it to you raw, bleeding, visceral, not dressed up in polite crinolines or cosied in stately homes.
In Minor Mythologies I have tried to put detective fiction, quest literature (like King Solomon’s Mines), the outlaw (from Robin Hood onwards) and other genres such as spy literature, in perspective as stories which reveal the basic emotions which we all experience and the way those emotions make us behave.
The term “mythologies” simply emphasises that stories from Homer and the Bible through to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus are based on primeval values and perceptions, which in their turn give rise to “ripping yarns”. A survey of English working-class readers who were new to literacy revealed that the majority read the Bible as a series of great stories – especially episodes such as Jesus’s miracles. These excited their interest a lot more than St Paul’s virtuous letters to the Corinthians (who don’t seem to have replied anyway). One wonders what the Leavises would have said about that: the Bible designed as a great read.
I hugely admired Cecelia Ahern when she told Patrick Freyne (Irish Times, October 12th, 2015), “I’m not saying I’m Anne Enright. I’m not delusional about what I am writing. I just think everyone should be given the chance to enjoy it”. It was a brave admission, because she was making a claim not to be considered as a “highbrow” novelist but on her own terms, on her own merits, as an author whom thousands of people want to read. And why? Because, apart from being a great storyteller, she tells her readers something about themselves. This is what all storytelling does, whether it’s Jane Austen or EL James, Maria Edgeworth or Danielle Steel.
We all have our prejudices, of course. I far prefer P D James to Agatha Christie. I will read Anne Enright and Deirdre Madden to the end of my days, but one novel by Arundhati Roy is more than enough and as for Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, I gave it to an orphanage.
O’Flanagan had me cheering from the sidelines when she said: “We need to rid ourselves of this outdated notion that writing as an art form is essentially superior to writing as entertainment.” There’s a wonderful moment in the television series The Durrells when the mother says to young Gerald, “Larry writes to dazzle. You write to entertain”. Yes, Lawrence Durrell wanted to “dazzle” readers with his poetry and exotic prose, which strives unashamedly to be an “art form”. Gerald, writing for money to finance his expeditions, wanted to “entertain” because otherwise his readers wouldn’t read him and the expeditions wouldn’t be paid for. But both brothers were superb wordsmiths and both got to the top of their respective ladders as storytellers. And they loved each other because of that. Neither would denigrate the other’s choice of either style or publisher.
Writing as an art form isn’t superior to writing as entertainment. It’s just different. And therein lies the gatekeeper’s problem, because difference is the most frightening thing we are likely to meet in this Mills-and-Boon existence of ours.
Richard Pine’s books include The Diviner: the art of Brian Friel, Greece Through Irish Eyes, Lawrence Durrell: the Mindscape and, most recently, Minor Mythologies as Popular Literature: a student’s guide to texts and films. He is a regular columnist for The Irish Times and Kathimerini (Greece) and was named critic of the year at the Newsbrands Ireland Journalism Awards 2018. He lives in Corfu.