Popularity vs. Critical Acclaim

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This Salon article examines the relative worth of "pop stardom" vs. "deathless prose."

What do you think of the article? I'm having trouble framing a question here -- I was going to ask which you think matters more, popularity (i.e., what people actually read) or critical acclaim (i.e., what has more artistic relevance.) Then I realized that you'd have to define "matters" -- to whom? Historians? Literary scholars? You and me? Anyone?

So I won't ask a specific question; just discuss your reaction to the article. And talk about some popular but critically lambasted or ignored authors that you enjoy.

-- Beth (beth@xeney.com), March 21, 2000


I'll be keenly interested to see if people at the top of the New York Times bestsellers list attain any sort of permanent reputation after their death. Some of them probably will - and it's hard to say which. I think I can recognition excellence when I come across it - but with so much being published these days, it's hard to narrow down the ranks of the excellent. I'm sure there are many excellent authors who are completely overlooked.

I recently read a book I'd like to see more widely read, by Jane Finlay-Young, called From Bruised Fell. It's a really compelling book about two girls whose mother disappears for about a decade and how they deal with it. Not a particularly cheerful book. The language is wonderful.

In the popular but critically lambasted category I'd place practically the entire romance genre. I enjoy Jennifer Crusie ("Tell Me Lies", "Crazy for You"), Deborah Hale (Harlequin Historicals, most recently "The Bonny Bride"), and Shirlee Busby the most. Crusie and Hale are wonderful writers; Busby is so horrifyingly purple she's a delight.

-- Joanne (joanne@pericardial.com), March 21, 2000.

That is a really interesting question. The Salon article really doesn't do much more than scratch the surface, but it raises several interesting questions.

One of the most important points is that no literary figure of the late 20th/early 21st century packs the clout of, say, Twain or Hemmingway or Dickens. The novel is not the important art form it was a century ago, or event thirty years ago. I work in a related field, and I think that you'll find that the sales of books have been gradually falling for the last 20 years or so.

Try to imagine life in the 1800s - no Internet, No TV, no records (not until the end) and no radio. Of course people went crazy over books! Now there is much more to distract us.

Also, the yardstick of celebrity has changed. Authors are not mobbed - movie stars and musicians are.

Some time back I remember seeing an intersting TV show, actually I think it was a panel on CNN-2 or something, that made the point that the introduction of the paperback practically saved the book publishing industry when it went into mass circulation in the 1950s.

Anyway, I'm getting off the subject.

It is very odd how some authors are read long after their lifetimes, while others who were lionized are forgotten before they are even dead.

When I was in college I was reading a lot of an author named James Branch Cabbel. Apparently he was wildly popular in the 1930s, but by the 60s, nobody remembered him at all. Finding his work in print was very tough 20 years ago and I imagine its even worse now.

Recently I've gone into a big bunch of books - the stuff that used to be in my parents house. A lot of the classics are in there and I am moving through them slowly. And you know what? Some of these old authors are justly forgotten, while others are obscure but damned good.

I've been reading some Twain and Dickens recently, and I find that I am enjoying them tremendously without some teacher standing over me making me read it. "Great Expectations" had me roaring with laughter at the beginning and practically sobbing at the end. So perhaps there is something worthwhile in the judgement of history.

-- Bill Townsend (justiz@global2000.net), March 21, 2000.

I think most authors would say that what matters to them is both present popularity and last reputation. It's nice to be popular now and have people buy your books and give you money while you're alive and writing, but it's also nice to think that people will continue to take an interest in the future. No one wants to feel unimportant, after all, so they hope that people will still be reading them in years to come.

What matters to the reading public (amongst whom the critics also have to be counted, however sniffy their attitude to said reading public may be), then? Perhaps harder to answer, but I incline to the view that aesthetics are of necessity a personal thing, so in the end the opinion of the individualassuming the individual is smart enough to have an opinion of their own without being content to just regurgitate or blindly follow the common consensusis ultimately what has to matter to them. I certainly wouldn't pay $750 for a Tom Clancy first edition because Clancy means nothing to me. I might pay that for an autograph manuscript or letter from H.P. Lovecraft, though, who does matters to me.

Through discourse and critical consensus, canons do get drawn up and so certain books (or films, pieces of music, paintings, etc) become held up by a certain degree of common consent as being "great". However, a canon of this sort is only good and worthwhile to the extent that it agrees with the opinions of the individual. I don't care if some list of Great Books includes Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness". It may be a great book but it bores me endlessly. Whereas someone like H.P. Lovecraft may not be widely viewed as a Great Writer, but frankly I'd sooner read Lovecraft than some Great Writers.

At any rate, there's no telling what will happen in the future. Today's instant fix hits may become the studied classics of the future while the stuff which has "literary reputations" attached may be completely forgotten and as the next few decades roll by, more new books will published and more forgotten stuff will be brought back to light, and so it will go on. I suppose that worrying about the relative worth of pop stardom vs deathless prose is kind of useless, cos there's no real way of telling just what will become regarded as deathless proseand more to the point, how long it'll stay deathless

-- James Russell (jgwr@ans.com.au), March 21, 2000.

my little response..,I think if a writer is able to stay at the top of pop cultures scales for extended period of time,than he or she may have some lasting impact.As a reflection of our times,pop culture(art,music),and pop writing(generaly fiction)reflects back to us the pulse of a current social sphere or stratum of our society.Sharing the underlying values,and the underpinning issues that drive us.But does a single book or its writer change us and our perceptions forever?,well thats another question altogether.I think 'lasting value' impresses itself upon an individual reader or upon many individuals,when something new is awakened in each of us,either in perception or in a change to our complete way of thinking.

-- paul wisham (pawishman@earthlink.net), March 21, 2000.

Coming onto this topic ages after it all finished, but anyway ...

I remember reading an interview with Jilly Cooper (she of Riders, Rivals, Polo et al fame) a few months ago when she was asked about this. She said it was a constant issue for authors. Her books are always panned by critics (although in my opinion they're well written, funny, and with an excellent turn of phrase - definitely the pick of the bonkbuster genre), but she said that although she dreams of a kind word from the critics, the authors the critics adore dream of her sales figures.

I think most authors write firstly because they love it, and secondly to make money ... they do it 'for a living'. So good luck to the ones that make a good living, as far as I'm concerned!

Anyway, am I the only one to have found 'critically acclaimed' books a complete load of self-conscious intellectual bunkum?

-- Jackie (jackie_collins@flextech.co.uk), May 03, 2000.

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