Fiction and its Readers
Fiction and the Reading Public. By Q. D. Lear's. ((han.. and Windus. 12s. &I.) Tim air is full of indications that the business of books, so long the Cinderella of the commercial world, is causing dis- quietude among its constituents, and Mrs. Leavis' elaborate and searching survey, which seems likely to arouse con- troversy in the circles where serious problems still meet with serious consideration, is a timely and significant symptom -of a sense of dissatisfaction which is gradually brimming universal. The book is the outcome of its author's election to a research fellowship at Girton, and she has given her opportunities full rein. She disclaims the desire "to be brightly ironical at the expense of best-sellers," and indeed her style has more dog. inatism than irony, and more emphasis than brightness. An unsympathetic critic might occasionally detect a lack of humour in the tarn of a phrase. But Mrs. Leavis is not attempting to play with her subject ; she attacks it with a will, and she has gone to the fountain-head for all her informa- tion. There is here no shirking, or reliance upon gossip. She has taken facts and figures from trade papers and official histories ; she has scoured the public and circulating libraries for information, and has even issued a questionnaire to sixty popular novelists, of whom nearly half returned effective replies. In this way she is able to present important first- hand evidence, not only upon what the reading public of to- day wants, but also upon what the authors are giving it. Having sketched the existing situation, she then harks back to history, and traces the processes of growth and disintegra- tion by which the taste of the modern reader and writer has declined to its present state. Finally, she considers the possibilities of reform. The inquiry leads to depressing con- clusions; -and many judges, themselves not unacquainted with The abuses discussed, will probably decide that Mrs. Leavis is unduly discouraged. Nevertheless, this is a book to command respect, and to invite the very fullest consideration. For its arguments are based upon thoroughgoing research, and conducted always with equanimity and judgernent.
"The reading capacity of the general public," says Mrs. Leavis, has never been so low as at the present time." In fact, it is no longer in touch with the best literature of its own day or of the past. A survey of the book trade during the last fifty years suggests that a vast mass of commercial and economic machinery has begun to overwhelm the world with second and third-rate workmanship, With make-shift consola- tions, false philosophy, and injurious intellectual " dope." This machinery controls the distribution of books, their intro- duction to the public, and even the direction of public taste. And its motive elements are twofold : first, a fostering of the herd instinct ; and, second, an acceptance of literature as a form of drug "that will set the reader up in a comfortable state of mind," helping him (or her) to forget the worries of home, and the economic straitness of the income, and en- couraging renders generally to drown their imagination in a sort of day-dream, which bears no reasonable relation to life. The result is that "the general public has now not even a glimpse of the living interests of modem literature, is ignorant of its growth, and so prevented from developing with it, and that the critical minority, to whose sole .charge modern literature has now fallen, is isolated, disowned by the general public, and threatened with extinction." The degree to which the standards of value have sunk is illustrated by the remark of a distinguished novelist that he had infinitely rather have written The Rosary than The Forsyte Saga, because "Mrs. Barclay was a great writer on her own plane—Shakes- peare of the servants' hall." That is really rather a terrible phrase, and provokes the retort that the standards of the servants' hall are swamping the field of judgement everywhere. "For the first time in the history of our literature the living forms of the novel have been side-tracked by the faux-bon."
It is not possible in a short review to suggest the variety and resource of Mrs. Leavis' inquiry ; and, if it seems inevitable to add that her choice of "living forms of the novel" is rather exclusive, and her despair for the republic of letters a little premature, the fact remains that she lays bare a mass of festering disease which is undoubtedly preying upon the heart of the literary spirit in England to-day. The herd instinct is certainly rampant. It is manifest in the crowded counter of the circulating library and in the repeated request to the distracted attendant : "Give ine another book like this ; I want something to make me forget the weather and the Income Tax." It is manifest in the surprising success of the Book Society, whose clients resign their private judge- ment, and are content again to have even the few books they buy chosen by men and women whose names they have got to know upon the covers of other books. And it is manifest in the roaring publicity of what used to be the "literary pages" of the daily and Sunday papers. It is an exaggeration to say as objectors often say in haste, that these organs proclaim three new geniuses a week ; but it is a truth, known to the experience of every bookman of business, that the shouting has long sin& grown so loud that it no longer matters what is shouted. Meanwhile, the intellectual atmosphere of the age is being very sensibly corrupted. Mrs. Leavis, always a little over-emphatic in her zeal, protests that there is scarcely a periodical or newspaper in which "liberty of speech has not been sold to the advertiser or mortgaged to vested interests." Things are not quite so bad as that, but they are bad enough, and it is difficult to see a way of escape. Our author believes that a private Press "with a conscious critical policy" might at least begin to leaven the mass. It is a Utopian dream ; but one never knows. The old parable still holds good, and the age of miracles is never really past.