Sunday, 6 October 2013

What's so good about modernism?

Here are ten novels. What do they have in common, apart from being out of print and and utterly forgotten?

The Man of the Forest by Zane Grey
Kindred of the Dust by Peter B. Kyne
The Re-Creation of Brian Kent by Harold Bell Wright
The River's End by James Oliver Curwood
A Man for the Ages by Irving Bacheller
Mary-Marie by Eleanor H. Porter
The Portygee by Joseph C. Lincoln
The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim
The Lamp in the Desert by Ethel M. Dell
Harriet and the Piper by Kathleen Norris

We'll come to the answer in a moment.

I've heard of the Western writer Zane Grey but only because he's cited as an influence by the hapless Holly Martins during a disastrous British Council lecture in Carol Reed's film version of The Third Man. Ethel M. Dell rings a bell because it's her glutinous romantic prose style that Joyce adopts in the Nausicaa episode of Ulysses


Glutinous maximus

Ah yes. This is my point. The ten dud novels listed above were all best-sellers in 1920, the year that Ulysses appeared. According to the trade magazine Publishers Weekly, they were the ten top-selling works of fiction in the United States. You can see a year-by-year list here here - it makes for grim reading.

Of one hundred top sellers of the 1920s listed in Publisher's Weekly I've read only All Quiet on the Western Front, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (which was a favourite of Joyce's) and P. C. Wren's once hugely popular Beau Geste. Of the remainder there's a handful of worthy middlebrow authors - Thornton Wilder, Sinclair Lewis and John Galsworthy (who quite incredibly won the 1932 Nobel Prize in Literature) but I haven't read any of their 1920s works. The rest of the titles are genre potboilers - romances, westerns, whodunnits and that sort of thing.

Now here are ten other novels from the same decade:

A Passage to India (1924)
Mrs Dalloway (1925)
The Trial (1925)
The Great Gatsby (1925)
The Sun Also Rises (1926)
To the Lighthouse (1927)
Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928)
Decline & Fall (1928)
A Farewell to Arms (1929)
A Room of One's Own (1929)

They're all good, they've never been out of print and they're so well known that there's no need to identify the authors. What they share as writers is a commitment to modernism, to complexity, to fresh ways of thinking and writing. They all wrote 'difficult' books which were read at the time by a small and highly educated audience - To the Lighthouse, for instance, sold around 4,000 copies in the year following its publication. It's my guess that the accumulated readership for each of these novels by now outnumbers the combined readership of the ten best-sellers at the start of this blog. Or nearly.

This second list is, in both senses, partial.  I have omitted À la recherche du temps perdu as only five of its seven volumes were published in the 1920s; and there's no poetry, so no Eliot or Pound. I could add another dozen books of equal quality, most of them by P. G. Wodehouse, but I think I've made my point - that great books last but bad ones, however popular, don't. For Peter B. Kyne, Harold Bell Wright and Joseph C. Lincoln read Dan Brown, Jeffrey Archer and John Grisham; for Ethel M. Dell read E. L. James. These writers and their terrible perpetrations will all be forgotten, and quite soon. 

Was there ever a more productive decade for serious literature than the 1920s? I don't think so. But when it comes to backing the innovative and the unfamiliar - have today's publishers learnt any lessons from history? Mneh.









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