One frequent retort you hear when calling for the reissue of forgotten books is that they’re probably forgotten for a reason – after all, if they were any good, they would still be in print, wouldn’t they? A prominent British crime fiction critic whom I refuse to name here actually sneered at the current revival of Golden Age mysteries using that rationale. One might call it the Argument from Posterity and like many such arguments it’s a fallacy. That a literary work is forgotten (or well remembered, for that matter) says nothing about its worth. Somewhat counter-intuitive I know but you know now what to expect from this blogger, don’t you?
Most so-called « classics » are such not because they are widely read and admired but because academics, critics and publishers – the Literati – think they’re great. They endlessly talk about them, write about them, teach them, reprint them until the intellectual lumpenproletariat surrenders. Modernist fiction is a case in point. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake may be a tooth extraction of a read for the commoner (who largely ignores it anyway) but it is still in print and enjoys a fertile academic life whereas John Dickson Carr’s The Black Spectacles, published the same year, is all but forgotten except by diehard mystery fans despite probably being a much more accessible and pleasurable reading experience for the aforementioned commoner. The problem is, the Literati like Joyce’s approach to literature but not Carr’s and so the former remains in print while the latter doesn’t.
Let’s suppose a Literati finds out about this blog and the blasphemous post you’re currently reading. After calling yours truly a philistine, they’ll probably make the tired point that « classics » endure because they’re still « relevant » – they tell us something true and everlasting about the human condition, society, race, gender and what have you. This I won’t dispute – what I dispute is the relevance of relevance. First, who gets to choose the criterias? Most lay readers don’t care or very little about the subjects laid out above – they’re certainly not up my list when picking a book. Second, why not addressing them should make a book of lesser interest to me? Once again, we’re left with the disagreeable impression that the game is rigged in favour of a particular brand of fiction, the one that is character-driven and « speaks truth to the power ». The one that Literati like better.
Once in a while, however, a book or an author the general public actually likes and reads is allowed to enter the Canon, but it’s always on the Literati’s own terms. The lucky girls and guys are praised for their real or perceived literary values. When reading the academic stuff written about Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson or Patricia Highsmith you’d almost forget that they were initially crime writers. Their virtues as such are entirely bypassed. What counts is what they had to say about the human condition, society, etc. As to those many colleagues of theirs who « have nothing to say » – mostly because they have more pressing things to do, like telling a story for instance – they serve only as a reminder of how genre fiction basically sucks and can’t be salvaged but by « transcending » it.
So what is the popular fiction reader/fan to do to avoid his favourite writers going the way of dinosaurs? Spread the word. Make converts. The current Golden Age revival started with discussion groups – actually ONE discussion group – whose numbers slowly grew until it became apparent that there was indeed a market for something else than the Crime Queens and the Tough Guys. Internet has many flaws, but its greatest virtue is how it circumvents established authorities and received wisdom. For the first time in history the making of posterity is actually in the people’s hands. Don’t let it being taken away from us once again.
2 commentaires sur “The Making of Posterity”
What, you think that John Dickson Carr is better than James Joyce? Bah! How can the scribblings of a mere detective writer compare to the brilliance of this:
Good safe firelamp! hailed the heliots. Goldselforelump! Halled they. Awed. Where thereon the skyfold high, trampa-trampatramp. Adie. Per ye comdoom doominoom noonstroom.
Yeasome priestomes. Fullyhum toowhoom.
Sants and sogs, cabs and cobs, kings and karls, tentes and taunts.
‘Tis gone infarover. So fore now, dayleash. Pour deday. To trancefixureashone. Feist of Taborneccles, scenopegia, come! Shamwork, be in our scheining! And let every crisscouple be so crosscomplimentary, little eggons, youlk and meelk, in a farbiger pancosmos. With a hottyhammyum all round. Gudstruce!
Yet is no body present here which was not there before. Only is order othered. Nought is nulled. Fuitfiat!
Lo, the laud of laurens now orielising benedictively when saint and sage have said their say.
A spathe of calyptrous glume involucrumines the perinanthean Amenta: fungoalgaceous muscafilicial graminopalmular planteon; of increasing, livivorous, feelful thinkamalinks; luxuriotiating everywhencewithersoever among skullhullows and charnelcysts of a weedwastewoldwevild when Ralph the Retriever ranges to jawrode his knuts knuckles and her theas thighs; one-gugulp down of the nauseous forere brarkfarsts oboboomaround and you’re as paint and spickspan as a rainbow; wreathe the bowl to rid the bowel; no runcure, no rank heat, sir; amess in amullium; chlorid cup.
Health, chalce, endnessnessessity! Arrive, likkypuggers, in a poke! The folgor of the frightfools is olympically optimominous; there is bound to be a lovleg day for mirrages in the open; Murnane and Aveling are undertoken to berry that ortchert: provided that. You got to make good that breachsuit, seamer. You going to haulm port houlm, toilermaster. You yet must get up to kill (nonparticular). You still stand by and do as hit (private). While for yous, Jasminia Aruna and all your likers, affinitatively must it be by you elected if Monogynes his is or hers Diander, the tubous, limbersome and nectarial. Owned or grazeheifer, ethel or bonding. Mopsus or Gracchus, all your horodities will incessantlament be coming back from the Annone Wishwashwhose, Ormepierre Lodge, Doone of the Drumes, blanches bountifully and nightsend made up, every article lathering leaving several rinsings so as each rinse results with a dapperent rolle, cuffs for meek and chokers for sheek and a kink in the pacts for namby. Forbeer, forbear! For nought that is has bane. In mournenslaund. Themes have thimes and habit reburns.
To flame in you. Ardor vigor forders order. Since ancient was our living is in possible to be. Delivered as. Caffirs and culls and onceagain overalls, the fittest surviva lives that blued, iorn and storridge can make them. Whichus all claims. Clean. Whenastcleeps. Close. And the mannormillor clipperclappers. Noxt. Doze.
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Intellectual lumpenproletariat is going to be my new phrase for the week! Just got to find a way to slip it into conversation causally… (once I have figured out how to pronounce lumpenproletariat.)
At uni I had to slog my way through Ulysses and given how incomprehensible it is at times (the only time I ever had to read Cliff Notes alongside a book to know what was going on), I can’t say I was overwhelmed by its relevance. I think for instance that I have been much more impacted by scores of vintage crime writers who have explored women’s role in society than by so many of the books I had to read for my degree.
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