Is our rubbish worse than their rubbish
I have here in my hand a document that is bound to induce cultural despair: the Nielsen BookScan summary of book sales for the first 20 weeks of 2002.
John Grisham holds a commanding lead for hardback fiction with The Summons. Though Ian McEwan's Atonement ranks a respectable 12th, it is outpaced by Danielle Steel's The Cottage (10th), Jilly Cooper's Pandora (ninth), and Stephen King's Everything's Eventual (eighth). John Bayley's memoir of Iris Murdoch (20th) and Sylvia Nasar's A Beautiful Mind (24th) appear among non fiction paperbacks, but that list is dominated by guides to cooking, dieting, drinking, driving, smoking, and which planets men and women come from.
One could easily use this kind of data to construct a narrative of increasingly stupid books and readers. Q D Leavis did as much 70 years ago in Fiction and the Reading Public, in which she described English literary history as a gently sloping decline from Shakespeare to Edgar Wallace. But there are difficulties with that argument.
After all, literary trash has always been with us. The audience at the Globe Theatre also devoured chapbooks about murders, bishops caught in the act, and pigs with three heads.
And were bestsellers a century ago any better than the novelisation of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (No 11 among hardback fiction)? Until recently that question was hard to answer, because bestseller lists as such did not exist in 1902. Many publishers' sales ledgers from that period have been lost, thanks to Hermann Goering and Winston Churchill. Paternoster Row was blitzed on the night of December 29 30 1940, and those publishers' archives that survived the bombs were often patriotically donated to waste paper drives.
Happily, historians of the book have found ingenious ways around these obstacles. Two young American scholars, Troy Bassett and Christina Walter, have painstakingly pieced together bookshop reports published in The Bookman, a literary monthly, to reconstruct a bestseller list for the years 1891 to 1906. Their most interesting finding is: Scots were hot.
There was a pandora charm beads staggering demand for the sticky sweet fiction of the "Kailyard School", such as S R Crockett's Stickit Minister. Even Sir Walter Scott, 60 years dead, continued to fly off the shelves, ranking 15th in overall sales. Each brought a distinctive ethnic flavor and pawky humour to literature. Equally remarkable was the continuing popularity of the soap operatic "sensation novel". Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Mrs Henry Wood, the two queens of that genre, were among the most widely stocked novelists in late 19th century public libraries, edging out Dickens and Trollope. Miss Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret is still an addictive read, a kind of chaste pornography. It could win the Bad Sex Prize, if it had any sex. Lately Braddon has enjoyed a revival among feminist academic critics, who find her scrumptiously trashy, though they prefer the term "subversive".
Mrs Henry Wood's 1861 blockbuster East Lynne does not actually contain the line sometimes attributed to it: "Dead! Dead! And never called me Mother!" But it is an accurate precis of the novel, which had almost a million copies in print by 1909.
Equally popular were historical costume romances, such as Arthur Conan Doyle's The White Company and Anthony Hope's Rupert of Hentzau, and religious fiction by Mrs Humphry Ward and Marie Corelli. So far the late Victorian literary diet seems predictably bourgeois, but Bassett and Walter also report a strong demand for feminist "New Woman" fiction: Sarah Grand's The Heavenly Twins, Grant Allen's The Woman Who Did, and (despite its devastating critical reception) Jude marriage pandora charm the Obscure.
Emile Zola ranks 14th on the Bassett Walter list, although (or perhaps because) he was banned from some public libraries, and Henry Vizetelly had been jailed in 1889 for obscenity for publishing him. More typical was another shop that catered to Burnley millworkers: it sold more than 20,000 copies (in a town with a population of 100,000) of the preachy Methodist novels of Silas Hocking.
How, then, do late Victorian and Edwardian bestsellers compare with today's? As far pandora holiday charms as moral values are concerned, there is a great gulf between Mrs Henry Wood and Jilly Cooper, but one can draw reasonable parallels between Conan Doyle and John Grisham, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Danielle Steel.
If we read biographies of Madonna and Dr Atkins's diet books, our great grandparents bought Eugene Sandow's bodybuilding handbooks and Ranjitsinhji's The Jubilee Book of Cricket. They read books on military and imperial themes, such as Lord Roberts's Forty One Years in India. Today the bestselling history still tends to be military history, much of it superb: see Antony Beevor's Stalingrad and Berlin: the Downfall, 1945.
The great difference is this: some remarkably demanding literature scaled the bestseller lists a century ago. You could find there John Ruskin, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and such sophisticated theological treatises as A J Balfour's The Foundations of Belief and Bishop Charles Gore's Lux Mundi. When the Everyman's Library series of shilling classics was launched in 1906, it shot straight to the top of the charts. In 1918 the majority of Sheffield working men never read books, but a dedicated minority (perhaps one in five) were tackling Dickens, Scott, Shakespeare, Pope, Emerson, Tennyson and Plato.
Is there really any contemporary equivalent? Every civilisation has produced a certain percentage of literary rubbish: that we must accept as a human constant. And it doesn't matter, as long as we also have a "popular high culture" which reaches a mass audience. The late Victorians had it, but we may be found wanting. Our garbage is no worse than their garbage, but to what extent are we still reading the best?
At least British readers still read books. In America, lazy students have for years resorted to Cliffs Notes, quick and dirty summaries of Middlemarch, Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness. That much is not new, but lately (reports The New York Times) publishers have moved beyond the classics to produce "cheat sheets" of contemporary books: Angela's Ashes, The Handmaid's Tale, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, even one of pandora beads clearance Oprah's selections. They have not spared Harry Potter.
And they find a ready market among educated adults, who are never going to be tested in school on such books. Say you're a typical, pathologically busy professional and you want to impress a client or party guest. You might try to bluff your way through a deconstruction of postcolonial ideology in Midnight's Children, but you are not going to read all 552 damned pages of it. Now you can resort to a 21 page distillation.
(Come to think of it, The Handmaid's Tale might gain something from that treatment.)
So if you are tempted to lose heart as you scan the airport bookstalls, remember: it could be worse. And it probably will be.
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