Monday, March 30, 2015

Literary Taste: How to Form It

Arnold Bennett - Literary Taste: How to Form It (1910)

Open Library direct link 
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LibriVox audio

Another audio version!  Check the link above.

Among Bennett's journalism are a few self-help books - How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, How to Become an Author, Mental Efficiency and this work.  He takes a pretty reasonable approach, recommending, for instance, that when starting on poetry never think about metre or form, to avoid modern works at the beginning, if doing this is not "agreeable" then don't do it.  "The aim of literary study is not to amuse the hours of leisure; it is to awake oneself, it is to be alive, to intensify one's capacity for pleasure, for sympathy, for comprehension.  It is not to affect one hour, but twenty-four hours."

But the real reason I'm posting this is because of his book lists.  The development of canons and tastes fascinates me and I often check out older lists or anthologies to see how they've changed.  Walter Scott was once considered the pinnacle of novelists but is now only intermittently read.  The wonderful short story writer John Collier frequently made mid-20th century "best of" anthologies but is now mostly ignored.  Spenser has been in a long decline - I recently read a Virginia Woolf make the same claim in an essay over a century old now.  The changes in the reputations of Melville, Faulkner, Orwell, Defoe, the metaphysical poets and many others are well known.  In fact Arnold Bennett himself would be one example.

Bennett divides his list of recommendations into three periods, excluding works not originally in English (with some exceptions) and works of mainly historical value.  He's admirably broad, stating "literature is the vehicle of philosophy, science, morals, religion, and history" - an idea most modern interdisciplinary advocates say but rarely do.

The prose writers of the first period include several that are still read such as Malory, Bacon, Hobbes, Bunyan, Pepys, Browne (or at least I've read all those--though admittedly not all of Pepys--and see them mentioned enough that most likely others have as well) and many that are known but little-read such as George Cavendish, John Evelyn, Richard Hakluyt and William Temple.  The one completely unfamiliar to me is Lord Herbert of Cherbury's Autobiography but I'm not sure why it's mentioned - most of what I found talks about the author's theological works, apparently still on the Catholic Church's Index.  Nearly all the first period poets are still familiar except maybe Robert Greene (primarily remembered for his attack on Shakespeare rather than his own work) or Philip Massinger.

I won't go through the other periods this way except to note a few subjects for further research because what better way to increase web hits than mentioning writers nobody is searching for?  So Bennett lists such current obscurities as William Law, James Morier, G.J. Whyte-Melville, Mary Russell Mitford, Alexander Smith and T.E. Brown ("a great poet, recognised as such by a few hundred people, and assuredly destined to a far wider fame" - oops).  Bennett does list some "justifiably" omitted writers that include Oscar Wilde.

Frank Swinnerton released a revised edition of the book in 1937 (Bennett had died six years earlier) and he included a fourth period that went up to 1935 allowing it to include Conrad, Woolf, Waugh, Wodehouse, Forster and surprisingly Oliver Onions, now mainly remembered for his ghost stories.