04 December 2006

Un-read Writers

Glancing through a weekend literary supplement at ecstatic reviews for what were quite clearly mediocre books, my thoughts turned to one of my favourite dinner table discussion points - neglected, unread, over-rated, and forgotten writers. Plunge into the bowels of any second-hand bookshop and go to the shelves marked either 'literature' or 'novels'. The same books will be there waiting for you. Oliver Wendell Holmes' The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, George Meredith's Diana of the Crossways, George Bernard Shaw's Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, Anatole France's Penguin Island, and maybe just Arnold Bennett's Anna of the Five Towns. And that's the good stuff. Doesn't your soul groan inwardly at these tired and faded spines? Don't you feel like running out to the nearest Waterstone's? Well don't bother - because they are only full of the stock which will replace this array of the great un-read.

What you have hit is the literary stratum of titles which were once important, or fashionable, or even considered 'great'. But about which nobody gives a hoot now. You would be doing the bookseller a favour by offering him tuppence for the lot so that he could refresh his stock. Don't you believe me? Well, when did you last read George Meredith or Anatole France?

The Nobel Prize for literature has been won by the unforgettable Henryk Sienkiewicz, Selma Lagerlof, Verner von Heidenstam, and Carl Spittler. And it was won as recently as 1974 by Harry Martinson. Have you ever read any of these writers? No - I thought not. And neither have I.

This is not to say that they might not have fine qualities as human beings - but for literature to endure we need something more than that. And yet the list of people who did not on the other hand win the Nobel Prize, even though they were eligible, is not endless - but it's pretty long. Leo Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Franz Kafka. So even the august bodies which pontificate on literary merit get this judgement wrong - and continue to do so.

What does all this prove? Well, that taste changes; that figures thought important in one period are considered insignificant in the next. [Incidentally, this applies in the fields of art and music, as well as writing.]

The pantheon of the very great changes less rapidly than that for the also-rans. Nobody but a fool would suggest that Shakespeare, Milton, Voltaire, Dickens, and Virginia Woolf were suddenly due to vanish from the canon. Yet all their reputations have been under attack at one time or another. Now, if my friend across the table would circulate the Port, I think we could move on to consider some unjustly neglected names.

more on GREAT WRITERS here

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