Of Literary Jealousy and the “Impertinent Prosperity” of Bestselling Writers

In recently published remarks, Lord Julian Fellowes — creator and writer of Downton Abbey — has rightly criticized the “intellectually sniffy luvvies” who look down on popular books. In this connection Lord Fellowes, who is currently preparing to bring Anthony Trollope’s 1858 novel Doctor Thorne to ITV, says he cannot understand the need of the literati to mock and knock Trollope. “There has always been this intellectual sniffiness towards Trollope,” comments Fellowes. “Even in his own time, he was very popular, but with the luvvies, that isn’t necessarily a plus mark. It became the thing to patronise him and be really quite rude about him, and that still goes on. I don’t understand it.”

We’ve never had a shortage of jealous “real writers” anxious to snipe at the work of better-known, better-selling “popular” authors. To this day the gap between popular literature and the severe judgments of the literary intellectual “elite” remains wide.

In recent memory, critics routinely despised the military techno-thrillers of Tom Clancy — and you certainly won’t find a single one of his books being taught in any college literature course. But the fact remains: Clancy’s work sold in the millions of copies.

Stephen King comes in for similar treatment. Not long ago, one Michael Conniff — author of a much-ignored novel entitled Book of O’Kells: Mother Nature (2014) — took to Huffpost Denver to explain to readers why Stephen King “can’t write” — this despite King’s long tack record of bestsellers. You see, it seems that “for a writer — any writer — sales are ephemeral. The only thing that counts is the words on the page. They either live on … or die horribly, the way characters often do in a Stephen King novel.” Conniff goes on to dissect a passage of King’s Mr. Mercedes, thereby (he thinks) demonstrating the gross inadequacy of King’s prose, as if there is even a point to such an exercise — an exercise which reeks of sour grapes.

In their time, both Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins came under fire from critics who used their great success with the masses as evidence of their overall inadequacy.

Conveniently, in this equation, the author who sells poorly is the true, full artist. Thus the literary elite have often made it a habit not only to demean their more successful colleagues, but also the reading public which has accepted and embraced these writers.

In 1859, the aristocratic Edward Bulwer-Lytton dismissed as “great trash” Collins’s now-classic The Woman In White. This book launched the genre of the “sensation” novel — a genre characterized by stark, suspenseful stories of murder, jealousy, intrique, adultery and other dark areas of the human mind and experience, usually featuring “cliff-hanger” endings to each chapter. The reading public disagreed with Bulwer-Lytton’s estimate. The tale became a giant bestseller, assuring Collins’s literary fortunes going forward.

The Woman In White appeared first as installments (alongside A Tale of Two Cities) in Charles Dickens’s periodical All the Year Round, and later in book form. Just as Tom Clancy’s novels would spawn an ancillary industry of video games, Collins’s The Woman In White spawned a franchise market of Woman In White perfumes, bonnets, cloaks, and other such items. Critics whined about commercialism, but Collins ignored their histrionics and stuck proudly to his fundamentalist literary guns, insisting simply that “the primary object of a work of fiction should be to tell a story …” Entertainment before and above all other things.

As for Dickens, the snobbish George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) in 1856 took aim at what she took to be his lack of depth, insisting he had no skill in drawing “psychological character. … He scarcely ever passes from the humourous and external to the emotional and tragic, without becoming as transcendent in his unreality as he was a moment before in his artistic truthfulness.” To her, Dickens’s work was simplistic and meant to appeal to a simplistic readership. Eliot’s partner G. H. Lewes criticized Dickens’s “animal intelligence, i.e., restricted to perceptions. … We do not turn over the pages in search of thought, delicate psychological observation, grace of style, charm of composition; but we enjoy them like children at play, laughing and crying at the images before us.” Thus Lewes explained Dickens’s appeal — what it was about his work which attracted all those less-than-brilliant “children” who characterized the common reading public.

In his superb The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), Oxford University Professor of English John Carey recalls Arnold Bennett: a novelist who emerged out of the lowly shop-keeping class at the turn of the century to find both fame and fortune as the creator of what he himself declared to be “low-brow” literature. He delighted in his work. At the same time, Bennett also delighted in the extent to which his work engaged and enraged the literati. The latter, in turn, took great pleasure in criticizing not only Bennett’s prose and plots, but also his background and manners. Carey writes:

He was “an insignificant little man and ridiculous to boot,” declared Virginia Woolf’s brother-in-law, the art critic Clive Bell. “He was the boy from Staffordwhire who was making good, and in his bowler hat and reach-me-downs he looked the part.” According to Somerset Maugham, Bennett looked like “a managing clerk in a city office” and was “rather common.” Wyndham Lewis sneered at his “grocer origins;” Virginia Woolf at his “shopkeeper’s view of literature.” Bertrand Russell found him so “vulgar” that he could not bear to be in the same room. T.S. Eliot told his cousin in a letter of how annoyed he had been when he was discussing psychic research with W.B. Yeats and a red-faced man “with an air of impertinent prosperity and the aspect of a successful wholesale grocer” came up and interrupted them in “a most disagreeable cockney accent.” This, he discovered, was Arnold Bennett. It particularly aroused the intellectuals’ venum that Bennett should have presumed to make money from literature, as they could not. D.H. Lawrence described him to Aldous Huxley as a “sort of pig in clover,” and Ezra Pound satirized him as the corrupt, venal and philistine Mr. Nixon, pontificating in the “cream and gilded cabin of his steam yacht.”

As we learn in Margaret Drabble’s outstanding 1974 biography of Bennett, the publishing career that eventually earned him not one but two yachts took off in 1902 with the success of his second novel: an exercise in sensation entitled The Grand Babylon Hotel. The novel sold 50,000 copies in Britian and wound up being translated into German, French, Italian, and Swedish. When critics pounced on Bennett’s book, declaring it “common” rubbish, he did not bother to defend himself. Instead, he attacked the rubric within which their critiques found form. “Not only is art a factor in life; it is a factor in all lives. The division of the world into two classes, one of which has a monopoly of what is called ‘artistic feeling,’ is arbitrary and false.” Bennett continued:

The average reader is an intelligent and reasonable being. He is neither an idiot nor perverse. The attitude of the literary superior person usually implies that the literary proletariat patronizes what it ought to ignore and ignores what it ought to patronize. … This is not so. … In every writer who earns [the average reader’s] respect and enduring love there is some central righteousness, which is capable of being traced and explained, and at which it is impossible to sneer.

As Carey points out:

Bennett’s whole quarrel with intellectual contempt for the masses is that it is a kind of deadness, a mark of inferior not superior faculties — a dull, unsharpened impercipience shut off from the intricacy and fecundity of each human life. Hence for Bennett the heightened sensibility of the artist is not antagonistic to the masses but looks to the masses — or, rather, to the hidden lives which that crude metaphor deletes — for its natural succour.

We all know the long list of authors denounced by critics and embraced by the public through the decades — a list which includes such literary phenomenons as Jacqueline Susann, Ira Levin, Arthur Hailey, Erich Segal, Harold Robbins, Richard Bach, Robert Ludlum, Danielle Steel, and James Patterson. I’m sure Michael Conniff could and would find what he believes to be numerous flaws in all these writers, as if that exercise might somehow change the balance-sheets of their careers, or render moot the entertainment and enjoyment they’ve brought to millions of readers by “turning out trash” and “pandering to popular taste.”

But, once again, what would be the point?