What to read? (Part 3) A Matter of Taste
What is literary taste, and how does one develop it? If the question of like / don’t like is insufficient, what other considerations come into play? My guru in this matter is little-read English novelist Arnold Bennett, whose Literary Taste: How to Form It, With Detailed Instructions for Collecting a Complete Library of English Literature (1909) sets out a comprehensive – if not always convincing – program for acquiring discerning taste in literature.
Bennett was born in 1867 in Staffordshire, England, where he had a modest upbringing. He later worked in his father’s law firm and as a debt collector before turning to journalism. He moved to Paris in 1903 and during the First World War served as Director of Propaganda for France’s Ministry of Information – in the days when ‘propaganda’ did not yet have a negative connotation. He married a Frenchwoman but separated from her and took a common-law English wife, with whom he had one daughter. His most famous novels are Anna of the Five Towns (1902), The Old Wives’ Tale (1908), the Clayhanger trilogy (1910-1918), and How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day (1910), an early example of the self-help genre. After publishing nearly fifty titles, Bennett died of typhoid in 1931.
Bennett’s works received a mixed reception in his lifetime. His prolific output led to accusations of mercenary motives; like his Victorian predecessor Anthony Trollope, he was seen as writing for money rather than for aesthetic expression, a view he did not attempt to counter: “Am I to sit still and see other fellows pocketing two guineas apiece for stories which I can do better myself? Not me. If anyone imagines my sole aim is art for art’s sake, they are cruelly deceived.” He was certainly popular: in a 1929 Manchester Guardian readers’ poll, Bennett came third on a list of the ten authors expected to still be read in 2029 (preceded by John Galsworthy and H. G. Wells, and closely followed by Rudyard Kipling and J. M. Barrie). It seems, as the New Yorker article about the poll concludes, that “we as individuals are poor at anticipating how our future tastes might change.”
As James Hepburn notes, “Critical reception is not necessarily the same as popular reception, and in Bennett the clash and the consonance of the two were notable aspects of his career.” Indeed, critical opinion in his own time was often harsh. Max Beerbohm labeled him a social climber, while Virginia Woolf and other modernists spurned him as part of the old guard of traditional ‘Edwardians.’ The Old Wives’ Tale was rejected by several American publishers but is now considered his most enduring work. In 1998 it even made it onto the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Novels, at #87, although author William Styron, one of the judging panellists, numbered Bennett among the list’s “old fogies.”
Nevertheless, there are those who are determined to rehabilitate Bennett’s critical reputation. The Arnold Bennett Society was founded in 1954, novelist Margaret Drabble published a favorable biography in 1974, and John Carey used Bennett as a key example in his 1992 work of literary criticism, The Intellectuals and the Masses, declaring him a populist hero because his works “represent a systematic dismemberment of the intellectuals’ case against the masses.”
Bennett was a hero for the under-educated masses because he believed everyone could improve their lives through reading. Like the aforementioned Trollope, Bennett took a rather businesslike approach to literary education, urging readers to adopt a schedule and a disciplined mindset: “I am sure that if you firmly and constantly devote certain specific hours on certain specific days of the week to this business of forming your literary taste, you will arrive at the goal much sooner.” This may all start to sound a bit like school work, but for good reason; “It is a course of study that I am suggesting to you. It means a certain amount of sustained effort. It means slightly more resolution, more pertinacity, and more expenditure of brain-tissue than are required for reading a newspaper. It means, in fact, ‘work.’”
In order to overcome fear and prejudice, Bennett advises that the reader try to approach literature with a clean slate. He suggests that wrestling with particular authors – offering Charles Lamb and William Wordsworth as exemplars of prose and poetry, respectively – will elucidate the aspects of writing style and give a foretaste of the benefits literary study will offer. Ultimately, the question the reader must answer is “Does the book seem to you to be sincere and true?” As Barthes would do some 60 years later, Bennett recommends ignoring the question of personal likes and dislikes, to “beware of your immediate feelings. Truth is not always pleasant.” In fact, “if a book really moves you to anger, the chances are that it is a good book.”
There is more than a touch of condescension in Literary Taste; Bennett seems to imagine his readers as dullards who would never be able to discriminate between good and bad books on their own. “The reason why you must avoid modern works at the beginning is simply that you are in not in a position to choose among modern works…Your taste is unformed…it needs authoritative guidance.” For this reason he advocates a pure diet of literary classics, avoiding all contemporary works for the time being – although the ‘modern’ material he would be referring to here would include Wells, Kipling, Barrie, plus some largely forgotten names like Charlotte M. Yonge and Marie Corelli. Modern works might prove to be not just of dubious quality, but downright dangerous; in “Reading for the Workers,” an undelivered 1921 lecture, B. F. Page proposed that working men are not capable of choosing their own reading material because so much of literature is immoral – instead offering his own comprehensive list of suitable spiritual texts. (The text of the lecture is reproduced in Literary Taste, Culture and Mass Communication volume 12, “Bookselling, Reviewing and Reading,” ed. Peter Davison, Rolf Meyersohn and Edward Shils – but unfortunately is not available online.)
Bennett places great faith in the ability of a classic work of literature to teach and counsel: “In approaching a classic, the true wisdom is to place ourselves in the position of the mental inferior, humbly stripping off all conceit.” Nascent literary taste here appears to be a function of class, with Bennett patronizing the uneducated lower classes and offering them literature as a way to better themselves and have a chance at becoming part of the intelligent middle class. Taste in the literary sense, as in the culinary, becomes a badge of social merit; as Pierre Bourdieu argued, through “the ability to make insightful choices in aesthetic matters…you’re merely asserting your level of ‘distinction’ – that is, drawing a class difference, and confirming that you belong in a certain social category which, in ways that matter to you, you consider superior.”
Yet literary snobbery goes both ways: if “the minority says curtly, ‘This is not art’; the majority answers, ‘Never mind, it is what we like. Besides, it is art. Who are you that you should define art? Anyhow it is popular.’ The minority sneers; the majority retorts a single word, ‘Envy’” (from “The ‘Average Reader’ and the Recipe for Popularity,” in Bennett’s Fame and Fiction: An Enquiry into Certain Popularities, 1901). Bennett seems to vacillate between justifying populist tastes and patronizing the common reader as an uneducated boor: “the average reader is too somnolent to be self-analytic…[he] has some of the instincts of the untutored savage…he has no sense of beauty—that is, the beauty of form.” However, he concludes that in fact “the average reader is an intelligent and reasonable being. He is neither an idiot nor perverse…on the whole his impulses are good.” By giving his readers the benefit of the doubt, even while swallowing his instinct for disdain, he maintains a belief that developing literary taste can be a sign of intellectual and social achievement.
A necessary step towards attaining literary taste is the acquisition of a library. Bennett gives a detailed plan for building a library of English classics stretching from Beowulf to Darwin. Amongst the well-known names on his list are a few that time has forgotten: Margaret Oliphant, G. J. Whyte-Melville, Harrison Ainsworth and Walter Savage Landor. “When you have read, wholly or in part, a majority of these three hundred and thirty-five volumes, with enjoyment,” Bennett cautions, “you may begin to whisper to yourself that your literary taste is formed.” The total cost of this exhaustive library of British classics? In 1909 Bennett reckoned it could be purchased for £26 14s 7d, which in 2005 terms equalled £1,525.17 or $2,673.01. If it’s not an unimaginable sum, nor is it insignificant – one wonders how realistic it would have been for someone of the working class to summon up more than £25 to spend on books in the 1900’s.
Although Woolf was amongst the most vocal critics of Bennett and his Edwardian values, she too believed that literary taste can be developed through a course of study: “as time goes on perhaps we can train our taste; perhaps we can make it submit to some control. When it has fed greedily and lavishly upon books of all sorts — poetry, fiction, history, biography — and has stopped reading and looked for long spaces upon the variety, the incongruity of the living world, we shall find that it is changing a little; it is not so greedy, it is more reflective. It will begin to bring us not merely judgments on particular books, but it will tell us that there is a quality common to certain books.” As readers broaden their range of experience, they will start to discern patterns in what makes a book worth reading. Ultimately this is a very personal process, involving solitude and introspection. Indeed, Bennett decided that “nobody, fortunately, can make your principles for you. You have to make them for yourself.” Even a critic so seemingly prescriptive as Harold Bloom admits (in How to Read and Why) “there is no method but yourself, when your self has been fully molded.”
So despite all the lecturing, all the choosing of set texts, Bennett and Woolf agree that, as she put it, “the only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.” Literary taste can never be an objective standard because it is constantly evolving and always individualized. For a reader, one’s personal taste in books may well be one of the best markers of identity. As Joseph Epstein said, “Reading is experience…we are what we read.” Nick Hornby echoes this conviction in The Polysyllabic Spree, the first volume in his delightful series of reading diaries from The Believer magazine: “with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are.”
Next week: what makes a classic? How do books make it into the canon, and why should we as readers pay them particular attention?