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488 ] A Commentary The Criterion: A Literary Review, 11 (July 1932) 676-83 In Fiction and the Reading Public1 * Mrs. Q. D. Leavis has written a useful book: that is, a book which provides information so presented as to allow us to make our own generalizations. Those who read the book intelligently will be likely to engage in speculations further than those of the author. Mrs. Leavis has attempted, not a history of the novel, but a history of the best-seller; a history, therefore, of the changes, and (as one would expect) the decline of taste in the last three hundred years. Her text may be taken as the two passages from Mr. Richards’s Principles of Literary Criticism, which she quotes: there is some evidence, uncertain and slight no doubt, that such things as “best-sellers” (compare Tarzan with She), magazine verses, mantelpiece pottery, Academy pictures, Music Hall songs, County Council buildings, War Memorials . . . are decreasing in merit. Best-sellers in all the arts, exemplifying as they do the most general levels of attitude development, are worthy of very close study. No theory of criticism is satisfactory which is not able to explain their wide appeal and to give clear reasons why those who disdain them are not necessarily snobs.2 She describes her method as “anthropological” [xv]; and if she means by this term, as I suppose she does, that not only individual and social psychology , but also economics and sociology, are no longer to be ignored by literary criticism, then I am wholly in agreement. The book will no doubt be soon superseded, and we should hope that it will, whether by its author or by someone else; for, as the first of its kind, its business is to stimulate more comprehensive investigation than this book can pretend to make. Her information about what is published, what is sold, and how it is sold, may not be very surprising to those who have been connected with publishing houses, with periodicals, with certain branches of education, and with criticism and reviewing of books; but to them the documentation should be useful, and to them and to the larger less-informed literate public , it should give much matter for meditation. [ 489 A Commentary (july) As for Mrs. Leavis’s conclusions, I can agree up to a certain point. I fear that to many cultivated readers she may give merely the impression that the development of modern society has inevitably brought about a deterioration of literary values, and that this is all there is to it; that in consequence, the only possible behaviour for those few who really appreciate art is a kind of monastic tenacity to values which the world has repudiated. I am not acquainted with the situation in British Honduras (see page 272);3 I cannot but feel that Mrs. Leavis’s “armed and conscious minority” determined to “preserve” [270] what can be preserved gives the effect of a gallant but hopeless rearguard action. I should be doing Mrs. Leavis an injustice in suggesting that she is defending, or supposing that what she defends is a “lost cause.” I have myself no great taste for lost causes. I mean that if I believe in a cause I find it impossible to believe that the cause is lost. If it really appears to me to be lost, then I must stop and examine, whether I have really cared purely for its essence, or whether I have attached myself as much to an impermanent form.4 It may be said, of course, that the prevalence of bad taste, the pernicious habit of novel-reading, and the vast success of the fourth-rate in our time are matters of no importance so long as a small public survives to appreciate the best. We may say that it was only to be expected that when the whole public had been taught to read, it would choose to read very poor stuff; that the taste of the mob can never be much elevated, because of its invincible mental laziness; and that the Athenian crowd would never have applauded Aristophanes if it had experienced the pleasures of Mr. Noel Coward and the cinema. But there is a great deal more to it than this. An élite which is only recognized by itself is in a bad way. And, as Mrs. Leavis shows by some of her quotations from popular novels and from letters written to her by popular novelists, our élite, such...


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