Every so often someone writes an article in some Important Journal deploring the state of Literature. The latest is this one by Fay Weldon, appearing in the London Times. I always get suckered into reading these, and in the end I always just roll my eyes at what they have to say.
Ms. Weldon seems to have her shorts in a knot over the deplorable tendency to mistake a best-selling work for a work of artistic merit:
Time was when popularity was the mark of artistic failure. David Shepherd’s painting Elephant was dismissed because so many people bought it; Tretchikoff’s ubiquitous print Chinese Girl appalled critics. Paganini filled concert halls too easily. Dickens always lingered as a slightly dubious figure in the ranks of fame, as did Tennyson. If the common man likes it, the theory went, it can’t be any good.
These days it’s the other way round. “Bestseller” betokens artistic success. It is the publishers’ ultimate accolade. If enough others like it, the suggestion is, so will you. Popularity becomes the measuring stick. A “good” book is, by inference, an easy book. A “good” book is one that sells.
I think she is mistaken. I don’t think anyone confuses best-selling works by Dan Brown or Danielle Steele with those having Great Artistic Merit. If they’re called “good”, it’s because they tell a good yarn, and do so in a way that keeps the broadest possible audience interested. Even Ms. Weldon must admit that the ability to do that requires some minimum amount of artistic talent, even if these authors employ a formulaic approach. One day they will be unable to add any freshness to their formula, or public tastes will change, and these authors are as likely to fall into the dustbin of history as did Edna Ferber or Harold Robbins. These authors were once the best-sellers of their day, with many of their works turned into Hollywood star vehicles, but can anyone find their work currently in print? Only a couple of Ms. Ferber’s works are remembered today, and only because one was the basis of a still famous musical (Showboat), and the other starred the Hollywood icon, James Dean (Giant).
There are still plenty of people around who think that if the common man likes it, then it can’t be any good. I do a fair amount of reading of periodical, both on line and purchased print copies, and I’ve never seen the term “Bestseller” used as a euphemism for “artistic success”. The most obvious example that turns Ms. Weldon’s argument on its head is to examine the reading list of books that Oprah Winfrey, arguably one of the most popular talk show hosts ever, has championed. She has single-handedly put books on best seller lists that would otherwise have never appeared there. None of the books she – or her staff – has picked could be characterized as “easy reads”, or have been books that are already popular.
The only true test of “artistic merit’ of any book, whether it’s currently popular or not, is whether it will still be read by later generations. In his day, Dickens may have been considered to be suspect as a “serious artist”, yet he is still read and studied today. Not only is he studied today for his literary merits, but his works are still enjoyed by audiences the world over. His contemporary, George Gissing, who was a less popular author, but who wrote works which ambitiously strove for “artistic merit”, is, however, barely remembered today.
If Ms. Weldon is railing against the modern media conglomerates’ tendencies to stick with tried and true money making authors, well, that’s just the nature of all media conglomerates. Their purpose is to make money, and minimize their risk when doing it. This same exact argument is leveled against movie studios, the television industry, broadway producers, music producers, and radio stations. Note how all of these various mass media industries have been swallowed up by the seven major media conglomerates. Yet, there’s still enough niche markets out there, thanks in large part to e-commerce, to provide an audience for the unusual, the quirky, and yes, even the truly creative artist.
In the end, I agree somewhat with Ms. Weldon that it is worrisome the degree to which publishing, and indeed all media, is more and more sticking only with “safe” ventures. Yet, new authors and new stuff pops up all the time, and some of it even catches on with the public, and in ways that are surprising and not always possible to predict. I think it’s safe to say that that there are more titles being published than ever, yet it’s hard to imagine that the fullness of time will reveal any more true artistic gems among them than in previous eras. I subscribe to the theory that the cream always rises to the top, however long it may take to do so, and only in retrospect can the artistic merit of any work be recognized, whether or not it’s popular in its day.