Having discussions lately about the topic that keeps academics in business, I guess: what is literature as opposed to other forms of fiction, I'd like to give access to this Orwell essay as a meaningful point of departure. I feel like I keep talking and arguing without any lines/definitions/meanings in place.
Good bad books. Essay by George Orwell.
Not long ago a publisher commissioned me to write an introduction for a
reprint of a novel by Leonard Merrick. This publishing house, it appears,
is going to reissue a long series of minor and partly-forgotten novels of
the twentieth century. It is a valuable service in these bookless days,
and I rather envy the person whose job it will be to scout round the
threepenny boxes, hunting down copies of his boyhood favourites.
A type of book which we hardly seem to produce in these days, but which
flowered with great richness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, is what Chesterton called the "good bad book": that is, the
kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable
when more serious productions have perished. Obviously outstanding books
in this line are RAFFLES and the Sherlock Holmes stories, which have kept
their place when innumerable "problem novels", "human documents" and
"terrible indictments" of this or that have fallen into deserved
oblivion. (Who has worn better, Conan Doyle or Meredith?) Almost in the
same class as these I, put R. Austin Freeman's earlier stories--"The
Singing Bone" "The Eye of Osiris" and others--Ernest Bramah's MAX
CARRADOS, and, dropping the standard a bit, Guy Boothby's Tibetan
thriller, DR NIKOLA, a sort of schoolboy version of Hue's TRAVELS IN
TARTARY, which would probably make a real visit to Central Asia seem a
But apart from thrillers, there were the minor humorous writers of the
period. For example, Pett Ridge-but I admit his full-length books no
longer seem readable--E. Nesbit (THE TREASURE SEEKERS), George
Birmingham, who was good so long as he kept off politics, the
pornographic Binstead ("Pitcher" of the PINK 'UN), and, if American books
can be included, Booth Tarkington's Penrod stories. A cut above most of
these was Barry Pain. Some of Pain's humorous writings are, I suppose,
still in print, but to anyone who comes across it I recommend what must
now be a very rare book--THE OCTAVE OF CLAUDIUS, a brilliant exercise in
the macabre. Somewhat later in time there was Peter Blundell, who wrote
in the W.W. Jacobs vein about Far Eastern seaport towns, and who seems to
be rather unaccountably forgotten, in spite of having been praised in
print by H.G. Wells.
However, all the books I have been speaking of are frankly "escape"
literature. They form pleasant patches in one's memory, quiet corners
where the mind can browse at odd moments, but they hardly pretend to have
anything to do with real life. There is another kind of good bad book
which is more seriously intended, and which tells us, I think, something
about the nature of the novel and the reasons for its present decadence.
During the last fifty years there has been a whole series of writers--some
of them are still writing--whom it is quite impossible to call "good" by
any strictly literary standard, but who are natural novelists and who
seem to attain sincerity partly because they are not inhibited by good
taste. In this class I put Leonard Merrick himself, W.L. George, J.D.
Beresford, Ernest Raymond, May Sinclair, and--at a lower level than the
others but still essentially similar--A.S.M. Hutchinson.
Most of these have been prolific writers, and their output has naturally
varied in quality. I am thinking in each case of one or two outstanding
books: for example, Merrick's CYNTHIA, J.D. Beresford's A CANDIDATE FOR
TRUTH, W.L. George's CALIBAN, May Sinclair's THE COMBINED MAZE and Ernest
Raymond's WE, THE ACCUSED. In each of these books the author has been
able to identify himself with his imagined characters, to feel with them
and invite sympathy on their behalf. with a kind of abandonment that
cleverer people would find it difficult to achieve. They bring out the
fact that intellectual refinement can be a disadvantage to a
story-teller, as it would be to a music-hall comedian.
Take, for example, Ernest Raymond's WE, THE ACCUSED--a peculiarly sordid
and convincing murder story, probably based on the Crippen case. I think
it gains a great deal from the fact that the author only partly grasps
the pathetic vulgarity of the people he is writing about, and therefore
does not despise them. Perhaps it even--like Theodore Dreiser's An
AMERICAN TRAGEDY--gains something from the clumsy long-winded manner in
which it is written; detail is piled on detail, with almost no attempt at
selection, and in the process an effect of terrible, grinding cruelty is
slowly built up. So also with A CANDIDATE FOR TRUTH. Here there is not
the same clumsiness, but there is the same ability to take seriously the
problems of commonplace people. So also with CYNTHIA and at any rate the
earlier part of Caliban. The greater part of what W.L. George wrote was
shoddy rubbish, but in this particular book, based on the career of
Northcliffe, he achieved some memorable and truthful pictures of
lower-middle-class London life. Parts of this book are probably
autobiographical, and one of the advantages of good bad writers is their
lack of shame in writing autobiography. Exhibitionism and self-pity are
the bane of the novelist, and yet if he is too frightened of them his
creative gift may suffer.
The existence of good bad literature--the fact that one can be amused or
excited or even moved by a book that one's intellect simply refuses to
take seriously--is a reminder that art is not the same thing as
cerebration. I imagine that by any test that could be devised, Carlyle
would be found to be a more intelligent man than Trollope. Yet Trollope
has remained readable and Carlyle has not: with all his cleverness he had
not even the wit to write in plain straightforward English. In novelists,
almost as much as in poets, the connection between intelligence and
creative power is hard to establish. A good novelist may be a prodigy of
self-discipline like Flaubert, or he may be an intellectual sprawl like
Dickens. Enough talent to set up dozens of ordinary writers has been
poured into Wyndham Lewis's so-called novels, such as TARR or SNOOTY
BARONET. Yet it would be a very heavy labour to read one of these books
right through. Some indefinable quality, a sort of literary vitamin,
which exists even in a book like IF WINTER COMES, is absent from them.
Perhaps the supreme example of the "good bad" book is UNCLE TOM'S CABIN.
It is an unintentionally ludicrous book, full of preposterous
melodramatic incidents; it is also deeply moving and essentially
true; it is hard to say which quality outweighs the other. But
UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, after all, is trying to be serious and to deal
with the real world. How about the frankly escapist writers, the
purveyors of thrills and "light" humour? How about SHERLOCK HOLMES, VICE VERSA, DRACULA, HELEN'S BABIES or KING SOLOMON'S MINES? All of these are
definitely absurd books, books which one is more inclined to laugh AT
than WITH, and which were hardly taken seriously even by their authors;
yet they have survived, and will probably continue to do so. All one can
say is that, while civilisation remains such that one needs distraction
from time to time, "light" literature has its appointed place; also that
there is such a thing as sheer skill, or native grace, which may have
more survival value than erudition or intellectual power. There are
music-hall songs which are better poems than three-quarters of the stuff
that gets into the anthologies:
Come where the booze is cheaper,
Come where the pots hold more,
Come where the boss is a bit of a sport,
Come to the pub next door!
Two lovely black eyes
Oh, what a surprise!
Only for calling another man wrong,
Two lovely black eyes!
I would far rather have written either of those than, say, "The Blessed
Damozel" or "Love in the Valley". And by the same token I would back
UNCLE TOM'S CABIN to outlive the complete works of Virginia Woolf or
George Moore, though I know of no strictly literary test which would show
where the superiority lies.