Monday, January 24, 2011


"Indisputably the most striking defect of this modern American literature is the fact that the production of anything at all resembling literature is scarcely anywhere apparent. Innumerable printing-presses , instead, are turning out a vast quantity of reading-matter, the candidly recognized purpose of which is to kill time, and which--it has been asserted, though perhaps too sweepingly,--ought not to be vended over book-counters, but rather in drug-stores along with the other narcotics.

"It is begging the question to protest that the class of people who a generation ago read nothing now at least read novels, and to regard this as a change for the better. By a similar logic it would be more wholesome to breakfast off laudanum than to omit the meal entirely. The nineteenth century, in fact, has produced in America the curious spectacle of a reading-public with essentially non-literary tastes. Formerly, better books were published, because they were intended for persons who turned to reading through a natural bent of mind; whereas the modern American novel of commerce is addressed to us average people who read, when we read at all, in violation of every innate instinct.

"Such grounds as yet exist for hopefulness on the part of those who cordially care for valid writing are to be found elsewhere than in the crowded market-places of fiction, where genuine intelligence panders on all sides to ignorance and indolence. The phrase may seem to have no very civil ring; but reflection will assure the fair-minded that two indispensable requisites nowadays of a pecuniarily successful novel are, really, that it make no demand upon the reader's imagination, and that it rigorously refrain from assuming its readers to possess any particular information on any subject whatever. The author who writes over the head of the public is the most dangerous enemy of his publisher,--and the most insidious as well, because so many publishers are in private life interested in literary matters, and would readily permit this personal foible to influence the exercise of their vocation were it possible to do so upon the preferable side of bankruptcy.

"But publishers, among innumerable other conditions, must weigh the fact that no novel which does not deal with modern times is ever really popular among the serious-minded. It is difficult to imagine a tale of action developed under the rule of the Caesars or the Merovingians as being treated as more than a literary hors d'oevure. We purchasers of 'vital' novels know nothing about the period, beyond a hazy association of it with the restrictions of the school-room; our sluggish imaginations instinctively rebel against the exertion of forming any notion of such a period; and all the human nature that exists even in serious-minded persons is stirred up to resentment against the book's author for presuming to know more than a potential patron.* The book, in fine, simply irritates the serious-minded person; and she--for it is only women who willingly braves the terrors of the department-stores, where most of our new books are bought nowadays,--quite naturally puts it aside in favor of some keen and daring study of American life that is warranted to grip the reader. So, modernity of scene is everywhere necessitated as an essential qualification for a book's being discussed at the literary evenings of the local woman's club; and modernity of scene, of course, is almost always fatal to the permanent worth of fictitious narrative."

*"Since this was written we average-novel-readers have formed a taste for 'modernization'; and we have taken kindly enough to romantic old legends once they had been burlesqued with the pallidly coy humorousness of a schoolmaster addressing a class of nubile girls. Even so, the principle remains. We yet resolutely rebel against forming a notion of any unfamiliar period; and we accept Camelot or Troy or Eden as the scene of our reading-matter only upon the assumption that the place was inhabited by twentieth century persons leading twentieth century lives."

--James Branch Cabell, 1916, from "Auctorial Induction," The Certain Hour.

One can see how these words can apply, with very little change, to literature today, especially (to my mind) so-called Fantasy Fiction. Mr. Cabell, in the footnote, is of course obliquely referring to his own Poictesme "romances."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Truer than ever...