Monthly Archives: December 2006

Is Stephen King the 20th century Sue or the 20th century Balzac?

There are two contradictory views of culture. The first holds that culture is the very best that a society produces, the second holds that culture is everything a society produces, even ordinary and ugly phenomena. In my opinion, both views are right.

Matthew Arnold says culture is the best of culture, providing the definition of high culture. But his view of greatness is a social construction influenced by trends and fashions, conditions of power, intrinsic characteristics of the work, historical accidents or a combination thereof.

The opposite view is taken by Raymond Williams who states culture is ordinary; culture is what is popular as defined by sales and mind share.

If we apply these two views of culture to 20th century English language literature we get:

  • Arnoldian writers: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Ian McEwan, Samuel Beckett and J. M. Coetzee
  • Williamsian writers: Stephen King, Danielle Steele, Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton and Barbara Cartland (source: index translationum)

In both views, these writers are successful. The Williamsian writers’ success can be measured by calculating the number of times they have been translated. The Arnoldian writers’ success is not that easy to measure but it can be done by using lists of ‘lists of novels that have been considered the greatest ever’ and other literary canons. I have largely based my shortlist of writers on the recently published books 1001 Books You Must Read Before you Die.

It would be interesting to find out if there are writers who sold well — even very well — but are still critically acclaimed. The answer according to the index translationum is William Shakespeare. He is currently the 7th most translated author in the world. This was not always the case. Lawrence Levine remarks that “By the turn of the nineteenth century, Shakespeare had been converted from a popular playwright whose dramas were the property of all those who flocked to see them, into a sacred author who had to be protected from ignorant audiences and overbearing actors threatening the integrity of his creations.”

So Shakespeare is both popular and critically acclaimed. Other writers in this category include, in order of appearance in the top 50 list of the index translationum:

If the history of literature excludes popular literature — as it does in the Arnoldian view — it cannot be taken seriously, it is no more than a case of historical revisionism, an historical falsification, an illegitimate manipulation of literary history.

But then again, one can probably think of enough interesting things to say about Stephen King, Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton. But what on earth is there to be told about writers such as Danielle Steele and Barbara Cartland? Although I must say that The Myth of Superwoman (1990) by Resa L. Dudovitz did a good job at explaining and defending women’s fiction.

Are writers of the Williamsian category culturally significant? Is this category of literature one we wish to preserve or forget?

Coming back to Stephen King, who I consider central in this discussion regarding cultural significance and ephemerality, will King’s name really be forgotten in 100 years? Not if we believe Petri Liukkonen, the author of Kirjasto, a site I’ve mentioned before. She writes: ” Like Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens or Balzac in his La Comédie humaine, King has expressed the fundamental concerns of his era.”

Balzac and Dickens are certainly not forgotten, they respectively rank number 38 and 26 on the index translationum. So is King really the Balzac or the Dickens of the 20th century?

Still, a final question remains. We’ve mentioned Balzac and Dickens, but we left out Eugène Sue (I’ve previously mentioned Sue in relation to Stephen King ). Both Balzac and Sue were very popular. Balzac is remembered and Sue not. Is it the Arnoldian dynamic at work that has given eternity to Balzac and oblivion to Sue? Is King the 20th century Sue or the 20th century Balzac?

Low, middle and high culture

Popular Culture and High Culture: an Analysis and Evaluation of Taste (1974) – Herbert J. Gans [] [FR] [DE] [UK]

With all this talk on nobrow, low and high culture, maybe it’s time to define the concepts of these cultures a little better. The best effort so far defining low and high culture is the following schema by American sociologist Herbert J. Gans from his 1974 book Popular Culture and High Culture: an Analysis and Evaluation of Taste.

High culture

  • Interest in creative process and symbolism
  • Preference for experimentation
  • Introspection preferred to action
  • Accepts different levels of meaning
  • Expects consideration of philosophical, psychological and social issues

Upper middle culture

  • A less literary verbal culture
  • Figurative and narrative art preferred, especially if illustrative of individual achievement or upward mobility
  • Enjoys nineteenth-century art and opera, but not early music or contemporary art

Lower middle culture

  • Form must unambiguously express meaning
  • Demands conclusions
  • Unresolvable conflicts not made explicit
  • Interested in performers, not writers or directors
  • Influenced by word-of-mouth judgement

Low culture

  • No concern with abstract ideas: form must be entirely subservient to content
  • Demands crude morality with dramatic demarcations, but usually limited to family or individual problems
  • Performer is paramount: enjoys vicarious contact with ‘stars’
  • Considers ornateness attractive

–Schema adapted from Herbert J. Gans (1974) by Stephen Bayley (1991)

See also: culturehighlow

Pages from the Goncourt Journals

In search of literary gossip

Pages from the Goncourt Journals (1850s, 1860s) – The Goncourt brothers
[FR] [DE] [UK]

The Goncourt brothers were Edmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt, both French Naturalism writers. They jointly wrote their long Journal des Goncourt from 1851.

Substituting pathology for psychology, their impressionist style had an intense and original precision. — [Dec 2006]

Stephen King and Eugène Sue

My previous post which mentions Eugène Sue got me thinking about Stephen King. Sue was one of the most popular novelists of the 19th century, yet he is now forgotten. King is one of the more popular novelists of the 20th century (according to the Index Translationum he is currently the 10th most popular novelist). Will his work be forgotten 100 years from now? Googling for “Stephen King” and “Eugéne Sue” brings up this quote on the best literature site on the net: Kirjasto:

Thomas M. Disch has noted that “readers of such current melodramatists as Stephen King or Anne Rice ought to be highly receptive to Sue’s grand excesses” (Horror: The 100 Best Books, ed. by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, 1988). — [Dec 2006]

Even if Anne Rice or Stephen King are forgotten in 100 years, horror fiction does not need ‘great‘ writers to survive. Horror is perpetually re-written. Horror and sex are at the center of the death-of-the-author-theories. Just as Faust was a reproduction of Don Juan, the writings of King and Rice are reproductions of The Mysteries of Paris and Dracula. Such is the nature of intertextualness. What some people perceive to be “great literature” is often no more than fanboyism and fashion. [Dec 2006]

P. S. Doing the same search “Stephen King” and “Eugéne Sue” brings up Dumas and John Grisham. The context is the serial novel as it was published in two Parisian cheap, advertising-based newspapers in 1830s France: La Presse and Le Siècle. “There was serious money to be made: the papers would pay up to 100,000 francs for the exclusive rights to a novel by a top-ranking author. The most popular and highly regarded of these were not necessarily writers who have held on to their places in the literary Pantheon: who now reads (or has even heard of) Frédéric Soulié or Eugène Sue?”

Nabokov on “La Nausée”

Whether, from the viewpoint of literature, “La Nausée” was worth translating at all is another question. It belongs to that tense-looking but really very loose type of writing, which has been popularized by many second-raters – Barbusse, Céline and so forth. Somewhere behind looms Dostoevsky at his worst, and still farther back there is old Eugène Sue, to whom the melodramatic Russian owed so much. –Nabokov, Sunday, April 24, 1949 in The New York Times Book Review

Nabokov states that La Nausée “belongs to that tense-looking … type of writing”. If, as we may suppose, this type of writing did not end with the publication of La Nausée, who are its descendants? Bret Easton Ellis for example?

Although Nabokov derides two of my favorite authors (Céline and Dostoevsky), he shares my dislike for Sartre. From the same review:

Sartre’s name, I understand, is associated with a fashionable brand of cafe philosophy, and since for every so-called “existentialist” one finds quite a few “suctorialists” (if I may coin a polite term), this made-in-England translation of Sartre’s first novel. La Nausée (published in Paris in 1938) should enjoy some success.

Peter Lubin on suctorialism:

Suctorialist was first and last used (by Nabokov) in an April 24, 1949, review of a French novel for one who “reads and admires such remarkably silly nonsense as the ‘existentialists’ rig up.” An ugly word, an ugly idea, and we may leave it, along with that novel, back in 1949.

Some unrelated eyecandy:

In Consultation (1924) – Joseph Schippers

Death of Orpheus (1866) – Emile Lévy

The modern underground

Related: undergroundmodern

Underground : L’Histoire (2001) – Jean-François Bizot
[FR] [DE] [UK]

“Certains disent, dans notre histoire écrite, que Spartacus ou Jésus pourraient définir le premier des Underground. Ou bien Socrate buvant sa cigüe, François Villon inaugurant l’esprit zazou de Saint- Germain-des-Prés, Galilée, Benvenuto Cellini, Giordano Bruno, chacun menacé de, ou finissant sur le bûcher pour avoir ouvert de nouveaux horizons au monde ancien. Tout un fatras de révolutionnaires que nous n’allons pas faire défiler ici. Plus près de nous, Dostoïevski et ses Mémoires écrits dans un souterrain. Comme les cheveux verts de Baudelaire, les fulgurants énervements de Rimbaud, les enfermements bougons de Lautréamont et ceux voluptueux d’Huysmans, Crevel, comètes jamais récupérées… Nous arrivons au siècle XX, celui qui a inventé le mot Underground. Un jeune vous interpelle : “Un label ? Une marque, un sticker, un badge, un pin’s ? Bref, vous étiez déjà les branchés de l’époque.” Un jeune a toujours le droit de vous attendre comme un crétin au tournant, puisqu’on a tous été jeunes. On lui répond : se brancher, voilà ce qui était et qui restera une vérité underground.”

The words above are by Jean-François Bizot in his introduction to the wonderful book Underground : L’Histoire (2001). Bizot was the editor-in-chief of French magazine Actuel, a magazine which in the tradition of the underground press as it arose in the United States and Europe of the 1960s. Bizot was also co-founder of the French radio station Radio Nova.

The “cult of beauty” vs. the “cult of ugliness”

Frontispice des Amours jaunes, dessin par Tristan Corbière
image sourced here.

In his 1913 essay The Serious Artist, Pound discusses two types of art; The “cult of beauty” and the “cult of ugliness”. He compares the former with medical cure and the latter with medical diagnosis, and goes on to write “Villon, Baudelaire, Corbière, Beardsley are diagnosis.” – “beauty is difficult”: Cantos LXXIV, LXXX

The monkey in art

Two monkeys smoking pipe
Etching by Coryn Boel (1620–1668), after David Teniers

From symbolising sensory pleasure to poking fun at the follies of mankind: Lucy Cutler on the role of the monkey in art

To contemporary eyes man has become the naked ape, but this was not always the case. The similarities between monkeys and men have always been recognised, but in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries monkeys formed part of the great chain of being and, like men, occupied a position between angels and animals. They were linked to the angels above by virtue of sharing their faculty of reason, while also being linked to the animals below through the experience of the senses. Monkeys and apes also became emblematic of man’s baser nature; dependent on or trapped by sensory pleasure. —

[Dec 2006]

Rochegrosse (1859–1938)

The Booty (pre-1893) – Georges Rochegrosse
Etched by Eugene-Andre Champollion, sourced here

Rochegrosse (1859–1938) is above all else the painter of Flaubert’s Salammbô, which he illustrated in great detail with absolute accuracy but a complete lack of understanding. The antique pictures which the artists of the fin de siècle offer us are more often than not laborious reconstructions and pretexts to depict nudes. Dreamers of Decadence, Philippe Jullian, page 140.