Aeschylus, Dante, Goethe, Tolstoy … and Morrissey

Pop star Morrissey has cocked what many would describe as a well-deserved snook at literary snobs like me by demanding that his autobiography be published by Penguin Classics. And Penguin Classics, to general astonishment, have agreed.

One can only guess at why Penguin Classics should dilute their well-established brand in such a manner, and risk alienating their core readership. Of course, this Morrissey book is likely to have sales that will dwarf those of their more traditional offerings, such as, say, Tom Holland’s splendid-looking new translation of Herodotus. One can certainly sympathise with that: the relentless sidelining of high culture within our society, the easy availability on the net of classic texts, and cheap and often free electronic downloads, must all have taken their toll on Penguin Classics’ sales figures. And for those who ask “what shall it profit a publisher if it shall gain the whole world and lose its own soul?”, the answer is “quite a lot, actually”.

But I remain sceptical that Penguin Classics were motivated primarily by lucre. It seems to me far more likely that they made this decision purely to spur me into writing another intemperate and vituperative rant on this blog about the decline of our cultural values. Well, just to spite them, I won’t. So there.

I bet they’re all feeling jolly silly about this now.

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30 responses to this post.

  1. You gave me a good laugh this morning!

    It would be funny if the book was only available translated into ancient Greek.

    Reply

  2. I rather see it as a Morrissey joke, an ironic gesture that is perfectly in keeping with his lyrics’ simultaneous grandiosity (even pomposity) and self-deprecation.

    In this case the self-deprecation comes from the fact that one immediately knows that the book can’t possibly hope to compete with the others on that imprint; so it’s amusing that it’s published beside them.

    Also, Morrissey invented trolling twenty years before the term was invented . .

    Reply

    • Fascinating. So Morrisey was the first person ever to engage in anti-social activities with the desire to disrupt discourse — and he did so approximately one hundred years after Oscar Wilde and two hundred after Thomas Paine and John Wilkes? Who’d have thunk it?

      Okay, Himadri, I give in. You’re right. This is a disaster of Biblical proportions.

      Reply

      • Yes. Morrissey was, as you say, the first person ever to engage in anti-social activities with the desire to disrupt discourse — and he did so approximately one hundred years after Oscar Wilde and two hundred after Thomas Paine and John Wilkes.

      • Hardly a disaster, Mark, of Biblical proportions or otherwise, and neither in my post have I presented it as such. But nonetheless, this whole business is something that old fogeys such as myself cannot help but regret. We can’t always choose what we feel, or regulate our feelings by the dictates of reason.

    • Hello, and welcome to the blog. I am afraid I do not know enough about Morrissey to pass an opinion on his motives in this matter, and am certainly happy to accept your view that it is an ironic piece of self-deprecation – a joke, in other words. But whether Penguin Classics should have been party to such a joke is, of course, another matter.

      Reply

      • Sorry, Himadri, I was trying to make a joke, an “ironic gesture” if you would. Apparently, I failed. I most certainly did not mean to imply that you were suggesting that this was a disaster. I don’t seem to be expressing myself well today.

        And, AJ, my apologies to you, as well. I don’t know much about Morrisey, but I looked up trolling and found that the word was used relative to the internet in 1992, or some time prior to that. I doubt that Morrisey was trolling the internet in 1972, so I assumed you meant trolling as a more generic activity. And that generic activity has a long history to it. Or maybe not… Not sure it makes any difference. Should have just kept my mouth shut.

      • Ach! – you don’t need to apologise to me, Mark! We’ve known each other too long for that sort of thing…

      • Oops, put my response in the wrong place. Yeah, just ain’t my day…

  3. So, what difference does it make? It makes none…

    Still, the Devil will find work for idle hands to do ;)

    Reply

    • Oh, if it weren’t for my having idle hands from time to time, there would be no blog in the first place! (And no bad thing, I hear you say… :) )

      I suppose there is no difference insofar as Penguin Classics still have a magnificent catalogue, with excellent new books still being added. And I really am grateful for this. Whether this particular publication is just a one-off, or whether it is but a first step towards an easy populism and away from what has till recently been its editorial values, we shall have to wait and see.

      However, to my mind at least, the judgement of the Penguin Classics editors has been, to say the least, compromised. Not that I believe for a minute that they really think that the first book by someone not known as a writer, let alone a classic writer, can be considered a literary classic. Even if it turns out to be good, it can’t be considered a “classic”: a “classic” is a work that has spoken to entire generations of readers, whereas this book hasn’t even been seen yet by the public. The whole affair is, rather, in every way, a cynical ploy on the part of Penguin Classics, and displays no small degree of contempt for its core readership. Fair enough, I guess I can live with that. But Penguin Classics is a brand I have grown up with: more than any other organisation, Penguin Classics have helped mould my literary tastes and perceptions. (I even wrote a post once celebrating Penguin Classics, and all it has meant, and continues to mean, to me.) So I think I may be allowed, at least, a modicum of wistful regret that that which I have loved so much for so many years is no longer quite what it was…

      Reply

  4. “to my mind at least, the judgement of the Penguin Classics editors has been, to say the least, compromised.”

    To mine as well, I still can’t really believe they’ll go through with it.

    Reply

  5. We’re all proud of your self-restraint, Himradi. ;))

    Reply

  6. Posted by ombhurbhuva on October 16, 2013 at 8:57 am

    Misled by the concept of an ‘instant’ classic beloved by the publicist no doubt the book will contain many unique events and be dismissed as egregiously commonplace. As far as readership goes, it will appeal to an untapped demographic, the reading finger one.

    Reply

    • Oh, I don’t think I have anything against people who don’t read, or against those who don’t read the kind of books that I do. Everyone is absolutely entitled to read whatever they want, I think, or not read at all should they so choose, without being looked down upon: we cannot all value the same things, and that’s fine. But what does distress me, I must admit, is the relativism that dictates nothing can be inherently more valuable than anything else; and, what I suppose is the natural consequence of such relativism, the steady sidelining away from the manstream all that is most valuable, and an unremitting focus on whatever is immediately popular. For, after all, if one no longer believes in inherent quality, what criterion is there left to judge by other than popularity of the moment?

      There is no such thing, I think, as an “instant classic”. There have been many attempts to define what a “classic” is, and it seems to me that the only possible definition is “a book that has lasted over time, for whatever reason” – i.e. books that have spoken to several generations – once again, for whatever reason .And as the Telegraph article I linked to points out, this is actually a very democratic process: it’s readers across the generations, and not some shady cabal, who decide which books speak to them. In contrast, a group of eitors at Penguin Classics deciding amongst themselves that a book that the public hasn’t yet seen is a “classic” is, far from being democratic, actually rather elitist. Only if this book is read by succeeding generations – i.e. only if it proves itself capable of speaking to succeeding generations; if it is popular not just now, but can demonstrate lasting power across generations – can it be regarded as a “classic” And that is a very democratic procedure.

      Reply

      • I agree with you about the relativity of ideas. It seems, to quote Ravi Zacharias, that we used to have an hierarchy of ideas and consequently increased value of people. Now we have an egalitarian view of ideas but a hierarchy of people. Give me the good old days where thesis and antithesis existed.

        I’m going to quote from one of your previous blog posts, but at the risk of sounding snobby, I think when a person cultivates good taste in literature, it develops a discernment between what is good and what is dreck. Just like a gastronome can tell the difference between a four star restaurant and a pop tart.

        Unfortunately with the egalitarianism of ideas, we have a lot of people enjoying literary “pop tarts” as though they were food from four star restaurants.

        Maybe Penguin has capitulated because popularity is marketable.

        PS: I had to look up Morrissey to see who he was. But maybe that’s because I’m American.

      • I hadn’t realised Morrissey wasn’t big in America. He’s certainly big here: he must be – as even I have heard of him!

        I think if we go down the route of relativism in literature, the very concept of quality becomes irrelevant: something is good because you think it’s good, and that’s enough. Of course, I’m entitled to believe, should I so want, that my doodles are finer works of art than Rembrandt’s drawings, and if I really am crazy enough sincerely to believe this, then that’s fair enough. But public galleries must decide what to hand on their walls; schools, colleges and universities must decide what to teach in their art history courses; and, whatever I may personally happen to believe, they will make their choices based on the consensus of the cognoscenti, which is about as close as we can get to an objective assessment of artistic quality.

        I don’t really believe that any of the editors at Penguin Classics really believe that Morrissey’s autobiography is classics literature, although I wouldn’t e in the least surprised if they were to make some relativist noises, along the lines of “We mustn’t be elitist” etc (it would rather ironic if they do say that, given there’s little I can think of more elitist than a bunch of grey suits deciding amongst themselves that a book is a “classic” before the public has been given an opportunity to decide for themselves). The whole thing is a cynical ploy. I haven’t been looking at Penguin Classics profit margins lately: I wonder whether things really are that desperate with them that they have to do something like this to keep afloat. It’s a sorry state of affairs if that’s the case.

  7. Posted by ombhurbhuva on October 16, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    Himdari:
    There is already a dilution of the term ‘classic’ in The Penguin Modern Classics series. Looking to the bookshelf I see Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen first published in 1968 and published in that series in 1987. ‘Instant’ classic is of course an outright contradiction in terms. It is just possible that Morrisey was not aware of this – I’m Morrissey and I want the best and that’s classic innit.

    Michael

    Reply

    • Elizabeth Bowen is a superb writer of short stories, but yes, a book must have spoken to a few generations at least, I think. There are, of course, works written less than 100 years ago that we may justifiably describe as cassis – Ulysses, The Four Qartets, Mother Courage and her Children – but 1967 does seem a bit too recent. But at least Bowen was a major literary talent. But this latest prank does defy belief!

      But I do agree, they have been diluting the brand fr some time now – but nowhere near as spectacularly as this, I think!

      Reply

  8. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on October 16, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    From a ‘Penguin Classics’ perspective there are obvious reasons for regular buyers of the brand to be disgruntled.

    But what is truly astonishing is Morrisey’s ego in believing that his as yet unseen product could remotely warrant bing alongside Cervantes and such, and remain there!

    I hate to use profanity on such a quality site as yours, but this is the ultimate in wankiness…surely!

    Reply

    • One can but conjecture what Morrissey’s motives are. It may be an outrageously large ego (not unknown amongst rock stars); it may be that he s poking fun at those of us who are uncool enough to care about classic literature; or it may be, as AJ Dehany suggests above, that he relishes the irony of seeing his name ranked alongside the Aristotles and Montaigne’s. Not knowing enough about Morrissey, I wouldn’t wish to pass an opinion. But Morrissey’s motives are irrelevant: what concerns me more is Penguin Classics going along with this ludicrous proposal.

      Ah well – it gives us all a good laugh, doesn’t it?

      Reply

  9. Well, we’ll always have Oxford’s World Classics… until Lady Gaga’s autobiography…

    Reply

  10. Posted by Avi Chatterjee on October 18, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    It seems to me that Penguin has been guilty of a lapse of taste and judgement. If you read the article linked below, you will see that OUP is guilty of censorship.

    http://ramachandraguha.in/archives/a-partisan-history-of-the-oxford-university-press-caravan-magazine-january-2012.html

    Reply

  11. Posted by alan on October 20, 2013 at 9:29 pm

    “Perhaps because Bengalis were disproportionately represented, the production and marketing staff of the OUP were also extremely literate, with a proper respect for the books they printed, bound, displayed, and sold.”…

    Reply

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