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:
15 Mark Twain US
16 Alexandre Dumas France
23 Fyodor Dostoyevsky Russia
24 Robert Louis Stevenson UK
25 Leo Tolstoy Russia
26 Charles Dickens UK
32 Oscar Wilde Ireland
35 Ernest Hemingway US
38 Honore de Balzac France
44 Edgar Allan Poe US
50 Franz Kafka Czechoslovakia
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?