Book Snobbery, Part Deux

I thought I was finished with this subject, but it seems it’s not finished with me. There’s another aspect to book snobbery which I didn’t address in my first post on the subject, and it’s been nagging away at me: the insidious and polarizing power of popularity.

In the late 90s I spent a couple of years running the European operation of a New York based Internet research company called Jupiter Communications. (That’s me above, in New York in around 1998). At the time I read very little fiction that could be called modern. I read a lot of fiction, but Edith Wharton and Henry James were about the most-up-to-date authors on my reading list. Also, being English, I had little or no exposure to the New York Times’ Bestseller lists. So I was a little shocked by my New York colleagues’ attitude to NYT’s bestsellers: most of them said they wouldn’t be seen dead reading one. The same went for any book with an Oprah’s Book Club sticker on the front.

I found this blanket condemnation a little extreme, although I recognized in it my 17 year old self’s attitude to music. At that age I’d adopt a band nobody had ever heard of, rave about them for months to anyone who would listen, and drop them promptly as soon as people started taking my advice and buying their music. Now that’s good snobbery.

The rather reductive thinking behind this was that if it was popular it must, by definition, be bad. In order to appeal to the masses the band must have ‘sold out’. Clearly, in my mind, the band had only gone into music in the first place to entertain me and a few of my friends. Not Hoi Polloi. How dare they let us down like that?

So I have a healthy scepticism for the idea that popularity is inversely proportional to quality. And yet seemingly quite sensible people seem to buy into this argument. In 2001 Jonathan Franzen caused a kerfuffle by disrespecting Ophah’s Book Club, and the expected endorsement of The Corrections never happened. What was he objecting to? It seems, the company he was being forced to keep. But I wonder if there was another logic taking place in Mr. Franzen’s mind. His core audience, readers of literary fiction, would not be seen dead reading an OBC pick. I think he didn’t want to alienate his core readers. He didn’t want to be accused of selling out.

To my mind, it’s tribal thinking. Wouldn’t the inclusion of The Corrections have improved the OBC list? Would exposing the readers of OBC books (many of whom bought OBC books and read them, just because Oprah had put them on the list) to some high quality modern fiction help to improve their taste? So what if there’s some drek on the list too. Who hasn’t read drek from time to time. (Who hasn’t secretly enjoyed it too?)

Of course, we can always find arguments to support our prejudices. Dickens was extremely popular in his day. You may not like his style, and rather melodramatic scene writing, but nobody would doubt that he was one of the most important English authors of the Victorian age. Which seems to argue that popularity and quality can go hand in hand.

But (to play devil’s advocate) you know who was more popular than Dickens in the 1860s? Mrs. Henry Wood. (Mrs. Henry Who? I hear you ask…) For a period she outsold everybody, but nobody now remembers her, let alone reads her. Her most famous novel, East Lynne is still in print, but very few of her other 30 novels are. Ergo, popularity proves a lack of quality.

The truth is the link between popularity and quality is complex and mysterious. Popularity is easy to measure. Quality is exceedingly difficult. The relationship between them is influenced by so many factors that it’s quite difficult to untangle. I’ll give you a parting example, to explain what I mean. During the 80s, a time of Thatcherism in the UK and Reaganomics in the US, the prevailing mood was one of rampant greed. It was no accident that the work of Garrison Keillor was very popular at the time. By harking back to a seemingly simpler time, where human values on human scales were more important than corporate raiding Keillor tapped into a nostalgia for values which seemed to be slipping away. His was a form of antidote. And it made perfect sense in the context of the society of the day. Most people who try to read Keillor today, not having this context, find his work mawkish and embarrassing. Twee to the point of sickliness. As a result, Keillor’s literary star has declined, and it seems he might be making that slow transition back to obscurity that is the fate of many authors whose work was popular ‘in its day’.

All this goes to show is that popularity guarantees nothing: neither quality nor lack thereof. It does make you think though. What books have you loved, that have never seemed to get the recognition they deserved. And (aside from the obvious current examples) what books’ popularity (and/or reputations) baffle you, as readers?

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7 responses to “Book Snobbery, Part Deux

  1. I joined Richard and Judy’s book club for one season. I know… What I discovered were no great books, some mediocre books and a couple of shockers. They were all accessible (perhaps i mean they were not challenging?) and seemed to capitalise on themes that were somehow fashionable at the time. Leprosy for one (?). I didn’t join for a second season. But maybe Oprah is on a higher plane…

    • I don’t think so. It’s a bit of a mix. Jonathan Franzen did condescend to have his latest book, Freedom, listed by the OBC. One of the big new talents in the US is an ‘old’ writer (he’s 53) called Ben Fountain, who’s just had his debut novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, published. I don’t see it on Oprah’s list.

  2. I’m a little late to the party here. Great follow up post. I went through a Henry James & Edith Wharton obsession too!

    A popular book that left me cold was The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory. I thought this would be a great guilty pleasure. I love historical fiction. I devoured Pauline Gedge’s series of books about ancient Eqyptian royalty, and Sandra Gulland’s series on Josephine and Napolean. But this book left me cold. I barely finished the first chapter. I just found the writing too awful to let go and enjoy.

    Books that should be more popular… I don’t know, I’m reading all the classics so they obviously stood some test of popularity over time!

    • Interesting perspective on Phillipa Gregory. My wife read The Other Boleyn Girl several years ago and loved it, but she’s currently trying to read The Red Queen and having a hard time: too much telling, not enough showing, clunky plot development, etc. etc. She blames me for making her think too much about what she’s reading. She’s probably right. For myself, one of my favourite books from the past was a slender volume called The Quincunx, by Charles Palliser. I haven’t looked at it in nearly 20 years, but I loved it when I read it and have passed copies onto at least six friends (I don’t currently have a copy, because, yet again, I gave my copy away). But I was always baffled by the critical acclaim for Kafka’s Metamorphosis (it would perhaps be a stretch to describe the book as popular, but it’s on most lists as a must read). Maybe it was because I was only 17 when I read it, but I found the book’s central premise too absurd to swallow. I just didn’t buy a single word. I found Philip Roth’s The Breast, which I read as a pastiche of Metamorphosis, funny and enjoyable, because Roth seemed to be taking the Mick (to use an old English expression).

  3. I can’t remember the last time I read a book that I was absolutely taken with. Either my taste is too highbrow or too low brow for modern print. I have yet to figure it out.

    The Great Gatsby. RAVE reviews. Great American Novel. What a dull read. Not that I need explosions or espionage or even sex. I just wanted good characters. Overrated indeed. BUT I still liked it, didn’t love it.

    • Dale, honestly, try The Quincunx (especially if you’re a lover of Wilkie Collins and/or Charles Dickens). But give yourself two solid weeks in the woods with it (I read it in a hammock, on a camping holiday in France, when my kids were little). BTW, just reading this month’s issue of Poets & Writers. There are a couple of lit. mags. in there that might interest you, both as markets and as reads: Conjunctions, and Phantom Drift. Right in your sweet spot I think.

  4. Just seen this interesting blog piece. I would argue that Mrs Henry Wood’s “Johnny Ludlow” stories are of sufficient quality (much better than East Lynne) to be still worth reading today, but they need a modern champion. They were commended by M.R. James, but which university lecturers follow what he says?
    Michael
    http://www.mrshenrywood.co.uk

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