Literary standards and “prolefeed”

One can’t, of course, read all the books that get published, and neither, of course, would one want to. But I generally like to keep up with what’s going on in the books world, and to that end, I often browse through the various titles on the shelf in bookshops. There will be those who will say that this is hardly sufficient, that one cannot hope to get the essence of a book merely from a casual glance. This is certainly true for certain kinds of books: obviously, if we are talking about a book of substance, or even a book that might be of substance, one has to read the whole book carefully before presuming to pass judgement. But crap one can tell at first glance. Quite often, a few paragraphs, or even a few sentences, are more than enough.

Why is so much utter crap inflicted on the public, I wonder? I look at the best writers of popular fiction from the past – from Wilkie Collins to Arthur Conan Doyle, from Jerome K Jerome to PG Wodehouse – and find in their works a concern for craftsmanship, an excellent ear for a well-turned sentence, a care for pacing and for construction – indeed, a respect for the reader. But most books I browse through nowadays seem to display the most undisguised contempt for the reader. The overriding ethos behind the writing seems to be “It’s only the popular market – who cares?” And the sad thing is that readers don’t care. Or, rather, vast numbers appear not to. No matter how much crap is thrown their way, they seem to lap it all up. And then they label as snobs and elitists anyone who does care for literary standards.

Literary standards never have been the preserve merely of “literary writers” – of the George Eliots and the James Joyces. I am currently reading one of those marvellous Flashman novels by George Macdonald Fraser, and at every page, am marvelling at the extraordinarily high quality of Fraser’s writing. (It is tempting to go into details here, but let’s not get sidetracked!) Someone such as Macdonald Fraser would have felt insulted, I think, and rightly so, by the suggestion that literary standards don’t matter just because one is writing for a popular market: he had sufficient respect for his art – yes, art – and for his readers to set himself the most exacting of literary standards. The same can be said, I think, for all good writers of popular literature. And yet, it is those of us who insist on high standards for popular literature, who insist that the intelligence of the readership ought to be respected, who are labelled snobs and elitists.

Someone was telling me recently how gratifying it is that Orwell’s dire predictions in Nineteen Eighty-Four haven’t come true. On the whole, I agree, but with one major proviso: it seems to me that there is one prediction that actually has come true, but which no-one appears to notice – and that is Orwell’s prediction of “prolefeed”. Nineteen Eighty Four is, after all, not merely a satire of totalitarianism, but is also a projection of various aspects of Orwell’s own society that concerned him; and one aspect that particularly concerned Orwell was the debasement of popular culture. So, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, he depicts masses of utter mind-rotting garbage churned out for consumption by an undiscerning and undemanding public. And this he called, with withering derision, “prolefeed”. 

In Orwell’s novel, “prolefeed” was produced by an all-powerful state, whereas the “prolefeed” of our own society is the product of private enterprise. But other than that, I can’t say I see any great difference. In this respect, Orwell’s nightmare vision actually has come true, and the sad thing is that no-one seems to notice. Or, perhaps, those who do notice tend to keep quiet because they would prefer not to be called names.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by necessary on August 8, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    This is hardly sufficient, one cannot hope to get the essence of a book merely from a casual glance.


  2. Hardly sufficient? Oh, I think this is sufficient enough for a good rant when I’m feeling somewhat more dyspeptic than usual! WHat is a blog for if one can’t let off a bit of steam from time to time?

    But I actually disagree with you on this particular point. The sort of books you & I may read, certainly, one has to read before one can pass any judgement, or even any comment, that is of the slightest validity: no question about that. But the Dan Browns of this world? You really mean to tell me that one has to read the whole of The Da Vinci Code before one can judge it to be badly written tosh? Read any few sentences from any page turned at random, and it is obvious. And why pick on Dan Brown when there are so many others? The shelves of the bookshops are groaning with the most atrocious tripe, and a few excerpts are usually more than enough.


  3. Posted by Caro on August 23, 2010 at 2:38 am

    Hi Himadri,

    I think your latest post here is an extension of this, really, but I will respond here, since that is what I have been thinking about. (There is a difference between reading all of a book and reading a few sentences. I think our Big Read literary quizzes show that – it is quite difficult to tell a literary style and really quite easy to pick a passage from a great book that can read in isolation as quite ordinary, if not poor.)

    But that wasn’t what I meant to discuss/argue against. Two points I specially wanted to make. One is that, contrary to what you suggest, this dichotomy between well-written books and poorly written ones is not at all new. The Penguin issues began in, I think 1936, when the originator couldn’t find good books readily available. And in earlier times, penny-dreadfuls and pot-boilers have been very common terms for the millions of books around that served to fill in people’s time in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries. The many who read Dickens read him in serial form as good adventure or sentimental stories more than as in-depth character studies and thoughtful insights. They can and are still happily read as that. I doubt that many ordinary people have ever found Ulysses to their taste. It’s hard-going, even if it is humorous and fun in many parts.

    The other thing is that so many people read for pure entertainment, in fact barely that. They read to fill in time. I am beginning to realise that people really really love filling in time in what seem to others time-wasting ways. I spend hours in front of a computer on message-boards and mind-dumbing patience games, because I WANT my mind to be dumbed. Or I sit on the sofa in front of television fiddling with a Sudoka puzzle. My husband’s time-waster is television and he doesn’t want anything particularly gritty; he wants Midsomer Murders, food programmes, gardening things, comedies. Other people spend their time on video games, jigsaws, perhaps even sport fills that need for some. But for some, especially older people without computers etc, it is books that fill that space. Quick-reading books with no depth but with characters they like and a story they can whip through. It’s the same repetitious mind-fluff that I get from repeated computer patience games. There are good computer games but they are not what I play.

    My husband reads talking books in the car on his way to and from work. He has just recently finished John Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener and feels he has spent a lot of time on something which was not relaxing or enjoyable. For him and many others reading is a form of relaxation. This book was depressing and sad and the bad guys got somewhere and the good ones didn’t. I have great sympathy with him – I am happy to read Anna Karenina knowing it will be depressing and sad, but I just hate finishing a book that leaves me feeling the world and its authorities is corrupt. If that is not true I don’t need to read it and if it IS true I don’t want to read it. It’s just unpleasant and horrid. I think John le Carre is thought of as a writer

    And if I were to list the books I think are excellent books and a list of my favourite books they would not be identical, Himadri. Yours might well be, but I do think you are unusual in this respect. I like to have read good books and I often very much enjoy them and some would be among what I would think of as my favourites, but I would probably choose to read something lighter for pure enjoyment. (These often are a disapppointment, but certainly not always. Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series for instance are wonderful reads. But perhaps they do fit with your Flashman books as popular books that are very well written.)

    The other thing, of course, is that more of us have time to waste; in days when work filled almost all the time when it was light, there wasn’t time for silly puzzles and suchlike. Probably not time for many people to do good reading either. And there also wasn’t the same ability to put out books of whatever quality; we have a lot more books, good and bad. I think there are probably a lot more goodish books than you give them credit for – those modern books you don’t appreciate are often very good indeed. Very well written, and very thoughtfully structured with ideas worthy of consideration. But not to your taste for some reason.

    You talk about the best popular writers of the past, but you compare them to the worst popular writers of the present. You could equally do the opposite and come up with different conclusions.

    Cheers, Caro.


    • In the first place, you are absolutely correct with quite a number of your points. One of the reasons I started this blog was to give myself a bit of space to let off steam. This being so, I allow myself to write the sort of thing here that I wouldn’t on the Big Read board. When I wrote this particular post, I was in a particularly dyspeptic frame of mind. And dyspepsia rarely makes for a balanced viewpoint. But for all that, a good rant (and my rants here are clearly labelled as such! 🙂 ) undoubtedly has a therapeutic effect.

      The game we sometimes play on the Big Read board – that of guessing the book or writer – or the kind of book and the kind of writer – from isolated excerpts is an interesting one, and as you say, we get it disastrously wrong at times. (I am still embarrassed by the time I was critical of a paragraph from Henry James “The Portrait of a Lady”.) But what I find interesting is that, more often than not, we actually get it *right*. Despite the difficulty of judging passages out of context, we do manage, on the whole, to identify the good writers, and to distinguish them from the not-so-good. Yes, admittedly, we sometimes mistake an exquisite piece of writing as self-regarding or merely precious, but generally, writing from books of literary worth are recognised as such, and no-one mistakes Jackie Collins for George Eliot. Bad writing – I mean *really* bad writing – can, I think, be recognised quickly, although we rarely include bad writing in our games, as most of us on the board tend to read works that have at least some kind of merit. I may not personally be the greatest fan of David Mitchell, say, but I would be unlikely to confuse his prose – even out of context – with Jeffrey Archer’s.

      The post above was written in a mood of distemper after that little kerfuffle we had on the board about that book by Candace Clark (is that her name?) As you remember, you put up a few examples of her writing, and. I actually took the trouble to go into a bookshop and sample some more of her work; but I think I could have saved myself the trouble: it was more than obvious just from the examples you provided whoever could allow sentences so awful to pass either didn’t have the slightest idea about writing, or didn’t care. I was actually rather shocked that writing so pisspoor could actually get published. And I was shocked even further to find they were reviewed in broadsheets. How could it be, I wondered, that writing so obviously incompetent not merely gets published, but is prominently publicised, when so many works by writers with genuine ability don’t even get to see light of day? The reflection really did depress me.

      But what depressed me even further was the little kerfuffle that followed. Without rehashing all the details of that incident, it emerged that it was apparently “snotty” of me to describe as “incompetent” something that someone else has enjoyed; and that I am applying standards of quality that shouldn’t be applied to books intended to be popular.

      On the second point, I went to some pains – both on the board and in the post on this blog – to emphasise that standards are just as important, if not more, in popular literature as they are elsewhere. If there *is* snobbery involved in all this, that snobbery does not lie, I think, in insisting that popular literature should be well-written, but rather in the oft-stated belief that standards don’t matter if one is aiming merely at the masses. This latter view I find insulting.

      But what particularly depressed me – and what spurred me to post this particular dyspeptic article – was the contention, often implied and sometimes stated openly, that it is somehow wrong to criticise something that is popular. Now, everyone is entitled to like whatever they damn well like: that has never been subject to dispute. What I *am* disputing, however, is the contention that that which is widely liked is somehow exempt from criticism.

      I think you have me bang to rights when you say this:

      “You talk about the best popular writers of the past, but you compare them to the worst popular writers of the present. You could equally do the opposite and come up with different conclusions.”

      Indeed. Orwell could not have worried about the debasement of popular culture had he not himself seen examples of debased popular culture. The “penny dreadfuls”- the kind of rubbish Joyce parodied in the “Nausicaa” chapter of “Ulysses”, or the kind of stuff Wodehouse parodied as the writings of the fictional Rosie M Banks (no relation to Ian, I presume!) must have been pretty awful. Rubbish we have always had with us, and it’s difficult to say whether the proportion of rubbish is greater now than it used to be. I think what has happened, certainly within my own lifetime, is that serious discourse on literature is no longer in the mainstream; and, as a consequence, the rubbish becomes more prominent. Let me give you an example of the kind of thing I mean. A few weeks ago, the Guardian published an article claiming that the eminent literary critic, Prof Gabriel Josipovici, had rubbished the works of those literary celebs Amis, Barnes and McEwan. This article appeared in the books section, but it was really another celebrity gossip story. Later, in a letter to TLS, Prof Josipovici gave his side of the story: according to him, the Guardian journalist “took a few sentences from one chapter of a fifteen-chapter book … [and] robbed those words of their nuance and context”. He continued that “on the basis of three telephone conversations in which [he] tried in vain to explain to her that [he] was not interested in personalities but in certain large and general literary and cultural issues”, this journalist “passed the whole thing off as an interview”. Prof Josipovici said further that he had been contacted subsequently by the Evening Standard, Radio 4’s PM programme, and by Newsnight, all requesting him to expand on what he had “allegedly” told the Guardian; but on his saying that he did not want to “talk about personalities but set the record straight about the content of his book”, none of them seemed at all interested. In short, while they thought it was a juicy celeb story (“Lah-di-dah Prof Disses Lit Slebs”), they were happy to run with it, but as soon as it threatened to turn into a debate on the legacy of modernism in contemporary literature, they couldn’t run fast enough.

      I know I may have a tendency to look at the past with rose-tinted specs, but it really didn’t use to be like this. As I was growing up (in the 60s and 70s), my parents used to get the Guardian & the Observer (which used to be rather good papers in those days), and I remember serious articles on literary matters. (The literary editor of the Observer used to be Terence Kilmartin – translator of Proust.) It really didn’t use to be like this.

      But this sidelining from the mainstream of serious discourse has, I think, given far more prominence to the rubbish. There may not be more of it now (in terms of proportion) than there used to be – but it’s more prominent. Yes, I agree there is still much fine writing around; but when I browse through the bookshops (a favourite time-wasting pastime of mine) and look through what seems like reams and reams of incompetently written tosh that display an utter contempt for the very concept of literary quality, my heart really does sink. Yes, of course, people are entitled to like what they want: that goes without saying. But I am equally entitled to deplore such widespread disdain for something that I value.

      But for all that, I do take your point: there is much good writing still around if one were to look for it, and, very likely, the proportion of published books that are well-written has probably not decreased. But I do feel that if we are to continue caring for literary standards, then we must not be afraid to criticise writing that is obviously bad. And there’s far, far too much bad writing around.


  4. Posted by Caro on August 24, 2010 at 7:54 am

    Thanks for that, Himadri. Sorry to force you to rehash things you may have wished to forget about! In my list of books I read I put a rating. My ratings tend to the high, so few books get less than 13 out of 20. Candida (I think it is Candida, not Candace – not certain though) Clark’s The Chase I rated at a 4. I just thought it was appalling. And I wouldn’t have minded the bad writing if there had been a story to pull me through it, but there wasn’t. And like you I am amazed that she is thought of quite highly. One of the reviews, very luke-warm, nevertheless said Clark ‘is a brilliant writer’. I find that hard to believe. Could you go from being brilliant to the drivel I had to wade through – people likening themselves to gravy is just too much!

    I can’t argue with really about British papers and their quality, but the Guardian and others seemed full of some wonderful writing to me, and I was quite jealous. (It was also full of tripe – I have yet to forgive the writer in the Sunday Times magazine article who thought we would be interested in the fact that her dental treatment meant she wouldn’t be able to give her boyfriend a blow-job! Well, maybe she was right – I still remember that after the beautiful writing and their writers have gone from my memory.

    We do live in a time of ridiculous attention to celebrities. I do not mind specially putting young sportsmen on a pedestal and considering them role models (though it seems unfair on them), but I do not want to know about their love lives, their children, their splits, or much about them at all. Even less so singers whose music I don’t know at all and whose faces I don’t recognise. (I saw a photo of Britney Spears today and was rather satisfied to realise I wouldn’t actually know her if it didn’t have a caption. (Sadly though I also don’t know the wonderful music you and others get such delight from, and that is a lack in my life. I suppose I could study it more and get to like it, but much of opera doesn’t sound at all nice to my ears. And long piano pieces lose me far before the end when I disappear into my own thoughts, usually with little to do with the music.

    Back to celebrities – the other day someone was responding to criticism of Television NZ’s programming. TVNZ is our public free-to-air channels, but they now have to give a dividend to the government and have constant advertising. (We just have two days a year sans ads.) In recent years the quality of their programming has gone downhill. The man said people just have to realise and get used to the idea that the programmes they like are still out there; they just have to seek out other channels. But he didn’t really address the issue of the paucity of good programmes. Bleak House was stuck on late at night, as are any other such programmes (whether you like these newer adaptations, they are certainly on the quality end of what we get in NZ, and we enjoy them very much. Ditto things like Lark Rise to Candleford and Cranford). One of his arguments was that there used to be just one women’s magazine in NZ The NZ Woman’s Weekly, but now there are lots and you can’t expect the same from the NZWW. That argument didn’t wash with me – the NZWW used to be a magazine about the lives and interests of ordinary or extraordinary NZ women – now it is, like the others, a regurgitation of the scandals of actors and sportspeople and what pass for celebrities in NZ, ie television announcers, radio shock-jocks, those who show up at posh parties. And even they have to fit a certain criteria – a few years ago one of our sportswomen won a couple of Golds cycling at the Olympics. She, a beautiful looking young woman, was not put on the cover of the magazine because she was too boring, not interesting enough, nothing controversial, not enough pseudo-problems to have overcome. Or something. This did cause a bit of a fuss. Well, all that just shows I can rant too – sorry. Shouldn’t take over your blog with my complaints.

    And I don’t want to depress you too much, Himadri, but today I heard on the radio that by 2012 there are expected to be 17 more “James Pattersons” on the shelves. The announcer here was very dubious about this, and thought that if all James Patterson had to do was choose a ghost-writer, give him/her the outline of a plot, and sit back and wait, he could manage that himself. No wonder people say they are getting worse, though I doubt they were much good to start with.

    Cheers, Caro.


    • It sounds all too familiar. I have, in a way, pulled up my drawbridge: I have the books I love, and the music I love, and I don’t really need to care about the mind-numbing celebrity culture that goes on outside. I really don’t care. However, we have two teenage children, and it isn’t really feasible to keep the drawbridge up permanently. I suppose there always eas a celebrity culture of sorts, but I really don’tthink it has ever been as all-pervasive as it is now.

      As far as literature is convcerned, those of us who care about it must not only enjoy and appreciate what we think is good – we should also be concerned by the prvalence of trash culture. Candida Clark is not by any means an isolated example: there are far too many writers – some of whom are even well regarded – who simply can’t write, and we shouldn’t be making excuses for them.

      However, I don’t want to become too grouchy. One of the reasons I started this blog was to give myself an opportunity to let off steam, but I wouldn’t want the overall tonality to become too negative. I think before I have another ill-tempered rant here, I should put up a few posts on some of the books and writers I love. There’s no shortage of those, after all!


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