Thursday, June 02, 2016

Laura Miller on Trollope and on how in the 19th century the novel went from entertainment for ladies to the pinnacle of literary art in the 20th century


 An autobiography published shortly after his death in 1882 revealed that Trollope thought of novel writing as more craft than art, and in James’ words, he “never troubled his head nor clogged his pen with theories about the nature of his business.” He is most famous among writers today for the regimen he described in that book: Rising before dawn and working for three full hours every day, even if that meant finishing one novel and starting the next because the allotted time hadn’t expired. Trollope had a day job with the postal service to get to, after all.

That prosaic approach didn’t jibe with the literary world’s efforts to transform the image of the novel in the 20th century. What had once been seen as a lucrative form of entertainment, produced for mostly middle-class and mostly female readers was recast as the highest pinnacle of the literary arts, the work of inspired geniuses answering the call of the muse rather than the landlord. So in the mid-20th century, the imperious critic F.R. Leavis, a loyal soldier in this project of solemnification, pronounced Trollope’s works as “beneath the realm of significant creative achievement” in terms of “the human awareness they promote, awareness of the possibilities of life.” (It’s no coincidence that the promulgation of this heroic notion of the novelist coincided with the rise of the idea that the greatest of novelists must be men, and even a male novelist like Trollope, with, as James put it, a “feminine” interest in the familiar and ordinary, was dismissed.) By the latter half of the century you could get through an entire undergraduate English program with a heavy emphasis on British literature, as I did, and never once be assigned a Trollope novel.

But a funny thing happened to Trollope on his way to the dustbin of history: His novels acquired an avid, amateur readership. It’s impossible to measure such things, of course, but he seems rivaled only by Jane Austen and Arthur Conan Doyle among 19th-century authors with an active contemporary fan base.
Long ago, if memory serves, Tom Wolfe remarked that the serialized novel was considered gaudy trash and rubbish that distracted from what was thought to be true literary art, poetry.  Then, somehow, the novel became the pinnacle of literary art.  One of those dry jokes you come across in Jane Austen novels is that certain types of very silly girls spend all their spare time reading trashy novels, the kind of dry put-down that seems, inevitably, self-aware enough that these days we'd call it breaking the fourth wall.
So it seems somewhere along the way all novels were dismissed in some sense as "chick lit" before they mutated into the art form of manly men. 
Now the proposal that an entire idiom of artistic expression wasn't considered legit in proper society until dudes did it was kind of Ted Gioia's premise in Love Songs.  I thought he seriously oversold the weight of his case but it was still an interesting read all the same.  In arts criticism there's room for what seems like a crazy idea if it can spark discussion and, better yet, can account for some stuff.  It does seem like it would be true that 90 percent of popular songs are love songs and that 90 percent of rock criticism has been written about the 10 percent of songs that WEREN'T love songs.  But that may be changing here and there. 

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