In Praise of the Second-Rate

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armchair reading

‘I have always had a taste for the second-rate in life,’ confessed Thackeray (as a by-the-by in his essay, A Brighton Night’s Entertainment).  ‘Second-rate poetry, for instance, is an uncommon deal pleasanter to my fancy than your great thundering first-rate epic poems.’  After a further paragraph in praise of second-rate beauty, contrasting the ‘grand, severe, awful’ first-rate woman with the one with whom ‘you fall in love in a minute’, he admits that ‘second-rate novels I also assert to be superior to the best works of fiction’.

Who, when scanning the shortlisted titles for the latest literary prize, would not secretly agree with him?  Why should you not read decently written, though not ‘superior’ novels which, as he says, ‘give you no trouble to read, excite no painful emotions’ and allow you to ‘go through them with a gently, languid, agreeable interest’?  He could have been, and perhaps was, describing much of his own output, which was gentle and agreeable in its time, but seems overly dated for us now.  Little of Thackeray is now read, except the stand-out Vanity Fair along with his children’s story, The Rose and the Ring and (although few of us have discovered them) his many journalistic pieces for Punch and other journals.

I read Thackeray in my early twenties (too much time on my idle hands), ignored him in mid-life, and have come back to him now in my more leisured days (time again on my hands).  And, like Thackeray, I find I have a great taste for the agreeably second-rate – Thackeray’s essays, novels by Victorian crowd-pleasers, cunning mysteries and pulp fiction from the 20th century’s Golden Age, and a stack of almost forgotten biographies.  Again, the second-rate gives rich pickings.  Victorian crowds were pleased not only by Dickens, Thackeray et al but by Mrs Braddon (Lady Audley’s Secret etc.), Mrs Ewing (Jackanapes etc.), George MacDonald (Phantastesand the Curdie books), not to mention Bram Stoker (considered very second-rate in his day), Le Fanu (In A Glass Darkly etc.), George Gissing (not a crowd-pleaser perhaps and, even today, something of an outsider) and other fine pens.  Biographies or, better, autobiographies of minor literary figures of the 19th century are ‘to my fancy,’ as Thackeray would say, often more rewarding than those of the great stars in the firmament – try Mrs Oliphant or the indefatigable Howitts; try Edward Fitzgerald’s letters or Benjamin Haydon’s astonishing diaries.

‘Lost’ writers are by no means confined to the Victorian age; the 20th century abounds in them.  How salutary it is to skim through a list of authors praised and promoted at the time but forgotten now.  Look at the 50-year-old listings for Penguin and other big publishers.  If you try some of those faintly familiar ‘second-rate’ authors or titles, familiar but not read by you, you have the enormous advantage of being able to approach them without the burden of having to like (or at least to respect) them, without the burden, necessarily, of having to read every word and, free of those burdens, you can extract an exquisite second-rate pleasure – the kind of the pleasure we all get at times from an old, slightly ridiculous black and white movie, or from an old but interesting magazine or anthology.  Such works may not tax you, but they certainly can please – or they may indeed tax you; every decade had its own crop of superb and by no means undemanding essayists, and they alone can set your mind racing, either with new thoughts (yes, people could think in the old days) or by the fact that they, then, were discussing and arguing over the same things we wrestle with today.  You may also gain the pleasure (indeed, if you stick at this, you will) of finding new names, new titles and new thoughts(from old sources).  While others prattle about the latest must-reads and repeat what reviewers say about the same small selection of those must-reads, you will have something fresh and original to contribute.  But the idea isn’t to impress your listeners; it is to find your own pathways and to enrich your own mind.

Books we Really Want to Read

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armchair readingAt the end of every year someone as interested in books as I am should love looking through all those pages of “Books of the Year” featured in late December’s weekend papers.  But I don’t.  I see the columns of separated paragraphs, each introduced by names that I respect, but my eyes glaze over and I can’t be bothered to wade through so many recommendations.  Is it because most of the recommendations are for the same old, same old, the books I saw reviewed earlier in the year, several times over, the lucky few among thousands published, the lucky few that by some strange alchemy are selected by paper after paper for review?  Thousands of others, of course, the vast majority are ignored, utterly and completely passed by.  How do they manage it, these lucky few?  Why them?

The one “Books of the Year” list that I did read through was the Guardian’s “Readers’ Choices” selection – because here, at last, were different titles, a wider selection, personal selections, quirky, particular and often unknown to me because, had it not been for this one chance for ‘ordinary readers’ to get a word in, these books too would have languished among the vast majority that fell silently to their grave.  With all the other pages of same old, same old selections I had already made my mind up – back when those books were initially reviewed.

A case can be made for running them together again as a great end-of-year aide memoir but, for me, I was wearied not so much by the sense of déjà vu as of not again.  Here, in that selection by ‘ordinary readers’, I was introduced to books that I hadn’t known existed – and, in the small space permitted, I was shown why I should care about them.  Of course I didn’t care about all of them – though, more often than not, I was at least interested – and of course this selection, like those by better known names, contained some of the same old, same old choices, books that had already been thoroughly reviewed and sold at me, but overall I had the feeling that here I was reading something fresh, by people who meant what they said.  And cared.

Next year I guess the papers will stick to their tried and tested coverage, and again I shall skip past, looking for something new.  Or I shall turn to the one place where I can find masses of idiosyncratic and passionate personal recommendations – the fan pages on the internet.  See you there.

Do Critics Know Best?

Once upon a time many an author railed against the critics (and, two centuries ago, an author had good reason, as many if not most reviews – which in those days were conveniently anonymous – were astoundingly hostile, amounting to little more than exercises in invective spewed from the guts of jealous competitors).  Nowadays an author is glad to be reviewed at all.

But do we need reviews?  Do the opinions of others have any merit?  Edward Gibbon (he of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) felt one should have the confidence to review one’s own work – not in public: some modern writers have been known to submit favourable reviews of their work under another name – but as a matter of private study.  Who, he asked, can review a work more thoroughly than its author?

“The author himself is the best judge of his own performance; no one has so deeply meditated on the subject; no one is so sincerely interested in the event.”  He discarded even the responses of his friends: “I was soon disgusted with the modest practice of reading the manuscript to my friends.  Of such friends some will praise from politeness, and some will criticise from vanity.”  (In the 18th century, when he wrote, far fewer books were written, and the practice of reading to one’s friends was more conventional.)

Gibbon was, perhaps, especially fitted to the task of critical self-analysis: a formidably well-read and capable writer (he had been the classic sickly child, left to find his own way through his father’s library) he grew up proud, strong-minded and supremely confident.  Yet even he was taken aback by the success of his greatoeuvre: “I am at a loss to describe the success of the work, without betraying the vanity of the writer.  The first impression was exhausted in a few days; the second and third edition were scarcely adequate to the demand,” he writes in his Autobiography.  “My book was on every table, and almost on every toilette.”

So was he right when he says ‘To hell with the opinions of others.  Trust only in yourself.’  Is that not better than trying to bend your work to others’ whims?

 A last word on Edward Gibbon – literally the last words of his autobiography.  A little wordy, perhaps, for today’s taste (especially when reading on screen) but there are less than 200 words here, so slow down a little, take him at reading-aloud pace, savour the 18th century prose, and ponder briefly on what he says.  Remember that these were the last words of his unfinished autobiography, which was published after his death on 16th of January, 1794.  One page earlier he had been musing: “The present is a fleeting moment, the past is no more; and our prospect of futurity is dark and doubtful.”

At the age of twenty, one year is a tenth, perhaps, of the time which has elapsed within our consciousness and memory: at the age of fifty it is no more than the fortieth, and this relative value continues to decrease till the last sands are shaken by the hand of death.

This reasoning may seem metaphysical; but on a trial it will be found satisfactory and just.  The warm desires, the long expectations of youth, are founded on the ignorance of themselves and of the world: they are gradually damped by time and experience, by disappointment and possession; and after the middle season the crowd must be content to remain at the foot of the mountain; while the few who have climbed the summit aspire to ascend or expect to fall.

In old age, the consolation of hope is reserved for the tenderness of parents, who commence a new life in their children; the faith of enthusiasts, who sing Hallelujahs above the crowds; and the vanity of authors, who presume the immortality of their name and writings.

Okay, that’s it for Gibbon.  No more.  Promise.

Colour Prejudice

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Why do we writers have such a problem with colour?  Why are we so negative about it?  Think how unthinkingly we use colour as a term of disparagement.  Whenever a writer uses colour metaphorically it is in a disparaging way.  The countryside is gorgeously green but we’re green with envy about the rural rich.  The summer sky is blue but we’re in a blue mood in spite of it.  The sun is yellow, as are buttercups, but we insist our enemies are yellow with cowardice.  We sneer at bureaucrats for being grey.  I could get red with fury about this, or black with despair.  No wonder I feel blue.

Colours are beautiful; we aspire to a colourful life among colourful people.  We love colour.  So why don’t we use colours to describe joyous emotions?  Why aren’t we pink or yellow with happiness; why isn’t love blue?  We say that love’s opposite, hate, is black, but what colour is love?  It can’t be black’s opposite, white, for that’s reserved for fear.  What colours are used for virtues?  Bravery has no colour, nor does truth, generosity or chastity (though is that still a virtue?) Perhaps we should say someone is violet with loyalty – why not?  Because violet’s near neighbour, purple, is reserved for fury again – we can be red, black or purple with anger, white with rage. Crimson and scarlet ; rage again.  Our anger has so many colours, although orange, perhaps, we cannot use; to me, orange is a foolish colour.  I’d want to say, ‘orange with foolishness.’

It seems to me that we writers are like graphic artists deliberately limiting ourselves to a restricted palette.  We use all our colours to represent unpleasant emotions.  And I’m feeling browned off about it.

I Beg to Differ – In Fact, I Insist, I Damned Well Insist on Disagreeing

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Sometimes I think I’m far too peaceable; I prefer to smooth ruffled feathers rather than wring a bird by the neck, when I might have got a lot further in life if I’d argued a damned sight more.  Back in the 1920s Robert Lynd pointed out: ‘There is nothing like a quarrel for attracting our attention. The ordinary man does not realize the importance of anything, indeed, till somebody has begun to quarrel about it. Who knows whether Helen of Troy was the most beautiful woman who ever lived?  Yet we find it difficult not to think so merely because she was the occasion of the most beautiful quarrel in legend or history. It is possible that more beautiful women have lived than any that ever got into the histories, but men did not lose their tempers and their lives over them, they were happily married, and their names have perished.’

Lynd pointed out the huge debt literature owes to quarrels and argument – can there be a story if there is no conflict?  Even if there is nothing to argue about we can make one up: look at Don Quixote, famous for his quarrel with a windmill.  ‘Literature,’ says Lynd, ‘is for the most part an idealization of quarrels. Cut quarrels out of literature, and  you will have very little history or drama or fiction or epic poetry left.’  He quotes an old Irish proverb that was new to  me; ‘Contention is better than loneliness.’  (He should know; he was an Irishman.)  For, as he says, ‘Contention may also be better than stagnation. It is said to be healthier to breathe bad air that circulates than to breathe good air that is perfectly still.’

If you know Lynd’s work you’ll find this a curious argument, coming from him.  He was such an equable essayist; one can’t imagine him arguing with anyone, and yet . . .  He had a long and successful career from writing, so perhaps a degree of argument was the secret of his success.  It makes me wonder whether, in all these years when I’ve been nice to people, I have been too polite for my own good.


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Back in the 1850s (when I’d like to think things were different, but perhaps they weren’t) Augustus Hare visited Loreto, a fortress-like church above Santa Casa.

“We were called at five to go to the church.  It was still pitch dark but many pilgrims had arrived and waited with us in a corridor till the doors were opened.  The scene inside was most singular – the huge expanse quite dark, except where a blaze of light under the dome illuminated the marble casing of the Santa Casa, or where a solitary lamp permitted a picture or image to loom out of the chaos.  The great mass of pilgrims knelt together before the shrine, but here and there a desolate figure, with arms outstretched in agonising prayer, threw a long weird shadow down the pavement of the nave, while others were crawling on hands and knees round the side walls of the house, occasionally licking up the sacred dust with their tongues, which left a bloody trail upon the floor.

“At either door of the House the lamplight flashed upon the drawn sword of a soldier, keeping guard to prevent too many people pressing together as they ceaselessly passed in single file upon their knees to gaze for a few seconds upon the rugged walls of unplastered brick, blackened with soot, which they believed to be the veritable walls of the cottage at Nazareth.  Here, in strange contrast, the negress statue attributed to saint Luke gleams in a mass of diamonds.  At the west end of the House was the window by which the angel entered!

“The collection of jewels and robes in the sacristy was enormous, though the priests lamented bitterly to us over the ravages of the Revolution, and that now the Virgin had only wardrobe sufficient to allow of her changing her dress once instead of three times every day of the year.”

Hare passed on without further comment.  I’ll try to do the same.

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Written by Russell James Edit

October 9, 2013 at 11:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized


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In 1855, little realising that he would become one of the 19th century’s most useful chroniclers, Augustus Hare wrote:

“Oh, how I wish I could become an author! I begin now so to thirst after distinction of some kind, and of thatkind above all others; but I know my mind must receive quite a new tone first, and that my scattered fragments of sense would have to be called into an unanimous action to which they are quite unaccustomed.”

It may take a while, dear tyro author, but you never know: your dreams may be answered.

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Written by Russell James Edit

September 12, 2013 at 10:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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