Tuesday 19 August 2008

The Kidults Have Spoken

From feminisation to infantilisation, with this depressing poll finding. Depressing - especially to find that force of evil, Roald Dahl, in second place - but all too predictable. Many, perhaps most, adults now read little or nothing of any significance after childhood, so their early reading will naturally loom large (and Blyton, whatever her shortcomings, was a horribly effective storyteller). Howeever, the sight of hordes of adults voraciously reading the latest Harry Potter suggests a deeper current of infantilisation. Too many people have simply forgotten - or, more likey, never learned - to read like adults. We have become, overall, less capable readers, as a glance at the kind of books that were published for a self-improving mass readership early in the 20th century confirms. Many or most titles on such lists as the early Everyman's Library would be quite impenetrable to the general reader of today - and even a hugely popular (in his day) novelist such as George Meredith would be regarded as all but unreadable (not that he'd make it into print in today's publishing climate).
Oh well - one good thing. Philip Pullman didn't make it into the top 50.


  1. Well, the poll was for best loved author, not best literature, so children's authors will naturally dominate. Austen and Shakespeare are on the list. It's not remotely depressing.

    Come come, Nige, a note of positivity has almost crept into the blog lately - did this one really have to be another "hell in a handcart/modern life is rubbish/my fellow humans are all idiots" post?

  2. Um, I read all the Harry Potters and even reviewed the last one (the first -- and probably last -- time I'll write a story that runs on A-1 in the paper). Personally, I'm happy to see people reading anything.

    You have to make the distinction between art and entertainment, Nige. Both are necessary. Harry Potter is entertainment and George Meredith is art. But both are diverting, given the chance. What's hard for most people is that they don't have the tools to dig into Meredith, but just about anyone can get Rowling -- so be glad that they do.

    I don't think J.K. Rowling is much of a prose stylist, but her plots are brilliant and she did do do a fabulous job of character development too. And she got a whole generation of KIDS reading again in this country, for which I kiss the hem of her skirt, or her jeans.

    Cheer up, Nige. Brit's a bit hard on you, but I can tell you're under the weather. It's time to go looking for butterflies; you know that will make your spirits lift.

  3. Nige, it’s one of those perennial questions but I think the answer remains glaringly obvious. Literature is at a crossroads. High literature is increasingly unpopular and populated by authors who are elitist, intolerant of narrative, and overly intellectual... Popular fiction has naturally swung the other way. It’s either high concept or unashamedly low-brow generic fiction written by ex-SAS machine gunners. Harry Potter does provide certain nutrients that we don’t get anywhere else. Poorly written, certainly, but with an old fashioned, rather comforting warmth that is at odds with modern life. In a way, it’s probably closer to the values that you or I would defend. It has always struck me as the kind of book that might have been written a century ago.

    Perhaps I’m being deliberately contentious but I often wonder if it’s not that people no longer know how to read but that authors are forgetting how to write. I know that I increasingly find myself going back to read writers such as Maugham and Buchan rather than anything published in the last five years.

  4. Yes that's true enough Dick - especially about British authors. I'm afraid I never really bought into the 'so long as they're reading something' school of thought Susan - can't see why reading shld be, in itself (disregarding its utility) a Good Thing? Why any better than watching films or TV? Isn't there a moral dimension to Bad (and Good) Art too - or am I being Ruskinian here? Anyway I'm pretty sure that this is the only decade in human history (expect perhaps the 1990s) when children's books would account for the top 3 places in a poll of this kind - and the infantilisation can be seen everywhere, not just in reading habits. I can't be good, can it?

  5. Expect? That's except.
    I? That's It.

  6. Hmmn, Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Bronte, not to mention our old mate Geoff Chaucer. More recent writers like Tolstoy, Orwell, Ballard, Ackroyd, Atwood, Wodehouse and, in fact, many others of note. It seems a pretty darn good list considering it's for "best-loved". Maybe the list more truly reflects current taste than the kind of fluff commissioned by the TV crowd even though the TV crowd gets more coverage. I'm sure C4 would have come up with something more like The Chav's Guide to Football Cards Innit. Those TV folks dumb us down more than we know: they dumb down our expectations of others.

    Susan has a good point, also about the melancholy effects of the weather. It's been shocking here for weeks now.

  7. And here in Philadelphia we've had the most glorious summer weather in many year. Day after day of sunshine and the low 80s. I fear every time it's beautiful in one place it's equivalently wretched in another.

    Oh, well. Perhaps you will get a good fall. All that rain should make your leaves incredibly brilliant when they change color.

    Good vibes to all of you....

  8. Chaucer best-loved eh? They're surely thinking about those TV versions, not the ballsaching original - admirable and full of interest tho he is, I'd have to be paid good money to reread Chaucer.
    Glad to hear somewhere's getting a bit of the global warming Susan - enjoy it. New Ice Age on the way to these chilly isles I reckon...

  9. Makes you wonder if the nation is full of secret scholars. I once spent a summer reading the whole of the Canterbury Tales in Middle English. As you say, interesting but hardly at the top of my list of favourite reads. I don't remember it making my balls ache.

  10. Even with the children's authors this list is better than I expected. I thought Dan Brown would have made it. If you really want to despair at the dismal state of popular literary appreciation I advise joining Richard & Judy's book club. (Sorry Dick.)

  11. Oh, Dan Brown does make it onto the list. He's our 19th best loved author.