John Carey on Elitism and the Literary Intelligentsia

Why is literary fiction inevitably a poor seller? This question is at the core of John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses, Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939.

John Carey asserts that the English literary intelligentsia of this era made a conscious effort to segregate literary fiction from the newly literate (or semi-literate) mass culture produced by the late nineteenth century educational reforms to which many of the intelligentsia opposed. The Education Act of 1871 introduced universal elementary education in England. When a newspaper called the Daily Mail emerged in 1896 it carried the slogan ‘The Busy Man’s Paper’ and announced its intention to ‘give the public what it wants’ This was in direct conflict to the belief that the public should be given what the intellectuals say they should be given. T.S. Eliot wrote in an essay:

There is no doubt that our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards…destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans.

The 1879 novel Immaturity by George Bernard Shaw was turned down by nearly every London publisher, and he concluded that the reason for its rejection was the newly adopted Education Act, which he proclaimed ‘was producing readers who have never before bought books.’

Publishers of the time also did not want the ‘excessively literary’ George Eliot, but preferred the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde).

As populist newspapers like the Daily Mail prospered, European intellectual hostility to newspapers grew. In The Criterion in 1938, T.S Eliot declared that the effect of the daily newspapers on their readers was to ‘affirm them as a complacent, prejudiced and unthinking mass’. Extensive campaigns against newspapers were abound. Critic F.R. Leavis wrote in Scrutiny of the mass media ‘arousing the cheapest emotional responses,’ declaring that ‘Films, newspapers, publicity in all forms, commercially-catered fiction — all offer satisfaction at the lowest level.’ Evelyn Waugh satirised the new trend in popular culture in his novels Scoop and Vile Bodies.

To the highbrows of the time, it seemed that the masses were not fully alive. Many of the predominate literary icons of this period expressed clear hostility towards the explosive over-population of the third-world; and the triumph of hyperdemocracy and social power created by this newly created state. Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun’s anti-democratic views are epitomized by his character Ivar Kareno, hero of the Kareno trilogy:

I believe in the born leader, the natural despot, the master, not the man who is chosen but the man who elects himself to be the ruler over the masses. I believe in and hope for one thing, and that is the return of the great terrorist, the living essence of human power, the Caesar.

Thomas Hardy wrote in 1887:

You may regard a throng of people as containing a certain small minority who have sensitive souls; these, and the aspects of these, being what is worth observing. So you divide them into the mentally unquickened, mechanical soulless; and the living, throbbing, suffering, vital, in other words into souls and machines, ether and clay.

D.H. Lawrence argues that only the elite truly live, while the proletariat merely survives:

Life is more vivid in the dandelion than in the green fern, or
than in the palm tree,
Life is more vivid in the snake than in the butterfly.
Life is more vivid in the wren than in the alligator…
Life is more vivid in me, than in the Mexican who drives the wagon for me.

Ezra Pound’s complex Cantos are a good illustration of the fashion for obscurity in literature, a style that itself expressed contempt for the common man. In Pound’s Cantos the multitudes and democratically elected leaders were a torrent of human excrement. The illustration of ‘the great arse-hole’ Pound contends, was a portrait of contemporary England.

A body of esoteric doctrine “defended from the herd” was adopted by a group of intellectuals who created a secret society called ‘The Hermetic Students of the Golden Dawn’ in 1890. This secret society fed the craving for power and distinction to soar the intellectual above the masses.

The contempt for the masses expressed by the literary icons of this period not only opposed universal education, but many also supported the ever-growing concept of eugenics as a means to control the overpopulation of inferior beings. Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection inadvertently led a new ethics most expressed in H. G. Wells’ New Republic. Wells writes:

The new ethics will hold life to be a privilege and a responsibility, not a sort of night refuge for base spirits out of the void; and the alternative in right conduct between living fully, beautifully and efficiently will be to die. For a multitude of contemptible and silly creatures, fear driven and helpless and useless, unhappy or hatefully happy in the midst of squalor dishonor, feeble, ugly, inefficient, born of unrestrained lusts, and increasing and multiplying through the sheer incontinence and stupidity, the men of the New Republic will have little pity and less benevolence.

The entirety of John Carey’s study is overwhelming, enlightening and extremely disturbing, especially as literary elitist tendencies may be an inevitable part of many intellectual communities, even today.

25 Responses

  1. Thanks, Jennifer, excellent
    Thanks, Jennifer, excellent review! Very timely.

    I recall reading someone’s opinion that a dichotomy started during Charles Dickens’ heyday, between “high” and “low” literature. I wish I could remember where I saw that.

  2. Thanks Jennifer, this is an
    Thanks Jennifer, this is an excellent article.

    That TS Eliot sure was one astute fellow.

    As far as disturbing, is it a case of plus ca change, meme chose?

    Take this: “To the highbrows of the time, it seemed that the masses were not fully alive. Many of the predominate literary icons of this period expressed clear hostility towards the explosive over-population of the third-world;”

    Still the same cries from the elitists — too many breeders in third world slums. And now they make too many gases — can’t let those third world countries become modern because they will use up all our resources and cause global warming.

    Too many people, over population, not enough resources, global cooling, new ice age, global warning, climate change, disaster, apocalypse.

    I’ve been hearing this literally since I was 10 years old. And it is all utter nonsense.

    Of course what do I know, I am living proof of Eliot’s astute prediction.

    I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam.

  3. Jennifer, this is one of the
    Jennifer, this is one of the most interesting articles I’ve read in a long long time – anywhere. I printed it out and will refer to it in the future. Thanks!

  4. Sure, these men were all
    Sure, these men were all elitist in the highest order, and being the child of blue collar workers, I should find them appalling. Yet in the end, were they all wrong? The time we live in represents what happens when such “elitist” and “intellectuals” are discarded and replaced by unaided “free” thinking. America has always been an anti-intellectual society in idea (Walden, anyone?). However, the Bush era shows how utter distaste for intellectual thought allowed for some to use watered down ideas to influence public policy. It’s unfair to say this is Bush’s fault (I wouldn’t want to be one of “those” people), but rather it’s the lack of intellectual stimulation in this country, a CHRONIC problem. It’s the product of the never-ending entertainment industry which dampens intellect, and schools (public and private) which water down true discussion and challenge in the classroom, removing much of the intellectual content. Now, I’m not disagreeing with public education at all (it’s necessary), but I think it’s important to stand up for the power of the intellectual in this society. When such people thrive, they can help provide wisdom and life-saving information as long as people are able to put good faith in their judgement and direction. It’s when the intellectual elite begins to form an overclass that they become dangerous. Yet, the overclass in America is one of money, with a true intellectual aversion despite the blue-blooded degrees.

  5. Yes, some intellectuals had
    Yes, some intellectuals had and have horrible perspectives on those less gifted. Let me just also say though, that one who honestly tries to educate his or her self will meet with incredible resistence and prejudice in today’s school system. And that resistence and prejudice comes from every corner of society, not just the elite.

  6. To all,

    Thank you. It’s a
    To all,

    Thank you. It’s a fascinating book, which was oddly applauded by The Guardian book review by calling it “Witty, passionate and end-to-end-readable.”

    Witty? What?

    Did you know that one week following Hitler’s death, Knut Hamsun published an admiring obituary to the Fuhrer, describing him as ‘a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations’. ‘His fate,’ Hamsun continues, ‘was to arise in a time of unparalleled barbarism which finally felled him.’

    This claim is in the book, which was also made into a documentary by the BBC. I believe that the fact checking in this must have been thoroughly researched.

  7. The thing is, who knows who
    The thing is, who knows who Knut Hamson is or was?

    He gets and deserves his anonymity.

    It is hard to say what is lasting art, initially. Sometimes great art is very popular, sometimes the very popular is not artistic at all and won’t last (this is probably more often the case — which is what the high brow elitists of that time were complaining about, to some degree — although they go much worse).

    Great works often are ignored and not popular during the artists life time. This seems fairly common.

  8. Outstanding essay, Jennifer.
    Outstanding essay, Jennifer. Thank you for this.

    I find it ironic, though, that Pound was put away while Hemingway and Fitz and Faulkner were placed on pedestals…until they cracked and gave away and fell to the ground where the uber subterrannnnnean rats like Jarrell, Jack, Ginsie, and Kurt and Joe Heller poked their whiskered noses up smelling the stink of human garbage and calling it for what it is…and striving with words on paper how that might be reversed if only we knew how (secret: find your own soul).

    What about Robert Graves, Siegried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Eric Arthur Blair Orwell and the Bill ectric comic book effect of war on literature? And readership [numbed and dumbied down]?

    Newspapers? Ha and bah I say. I used to write for them. What a waste of trees.

    But these days, I toss off as just one more broken down old mad bag clown.

    Keep posting, Ms. Cuddy. Your insights are fresh! And sharp!

  9. oh, yes
    let us nver frget

    oh, yes
    let us nver frget James Joyce
    and faithfull beckett

  10. You raise some interesting
    You raise some interesting points, but I’d like to clarify them a bit. The first – why doesn’t literary fiction sell more. I would ask – (1) why doesn’t the public read more; and (2) for those who read, why do they prefer cookbooks, mysteries, romance, how-to, etc., to literary fiction?

    I think there’re three likely answers – (1) the public isn’t aware of literary fiction, or (2) they prefer cookbooks, etc.; or (3) cookbooks, etc., are actually better reading than literary fiction.

    Personally, I dunno. My own preference is literary fiction. But I don’t read the other types of books, so I dunno if they’re as good or better or what. I live in a little town in the midwest. People here hunt, fish, play golf, smoke crack. All sorta shit. Me, I read.

    Does that make me better than them? How would one go about proving or disproving that? I used to fish. That was fun, kinda messy, have t’kill the little buggers, and all. Used to go to the bars and drink. That was kind of a waste, I think. See a of folks there though.

    People at the library too, not as many, but some. But most of the books there aren’t literary fiction. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe agents and publishers are just in it for the money, the quick sell, easy cash. Art would be tougher to discern.

    So that leaves us with two possibilities – agents and publishers don’t know art when they see it; or…they know it, but forsake any and all integrity they ever had, and sell junk instead.

  11. Hi Levi,

    I’d never heard of
    Hi Levi,

    I’d never heard of him. I certainly defer to your greater knowledge in this area.

    Interestingly, I looked him up and these things were when he was very old, in his 80’s. And people did get very angry at these statements. He was found to be mentally incapacitated or something.

    At Amazon, the reviews for this book have been generally good, but one was dismissive and criticized it for being essentially sensationalistic. Plying up what a senile octagenarian wrote as somehow relevant or conclusively representative would be consistent with that reviewer’s criticism.

  12. How depressing to read yet
    How depressing to read yet more gushing over this singularly philistine book. No doubt you didn’t have the space to explain how Pound’s Cantos has “a style that … expressed contempt for the common man”. Is contempt any better than patronising cant from liberals keen to protect this mythical figure: “the common man”?

    Another complication: did you know the Daily Mail gave enthusiastic support to fascist movements throughout the 30s? What does that tell you about the “highbrows” fear of populism?

    And Bill, you can find where you read that “a dichotomy started during Charles Dickens’ heyday, between high and low literature” everywhere, because it’s an urban myth.

    Another myth is that literature is necessarily a force of humanistic progress and, like a dose of cod liver oil, it’s good for the reader. “Highbrows” tend to know it’s more complex than that and their art often reflects this. For managing to include more than an entertainment, they suffer from the contempt of people who want to return to a perceived age of innocence represented by Dickens. Yet Victorian sentimentalism is but a blip in the history of western art, though some in the literary establishment (the chief reviewer for the London Times for example) cannot bring themselves to tell “the common man”.

  13. Mikael,

    In answer to your

    In answer to your questions:
    1. Why doesn’t literary fiction sell more?
    I’ve tried to answer this question by exploring the self conscious segregation of literary fiction from popular fiction in this article.
    Other than that, I think that people associate literary fiction with their school years, e.g., books they were forced to read. Literary fiction does sell, but is just not the typical kind of book a busy housewife or executive types chooses to read due to utility.

    2. I think that the public do read, and that the notorious telephone surveys were flawed. But many people are very busy, and sometimes they just want to turn their brains off after a hard days work. But the intellectual will always read well written books that challenge them.

    3.Cookbooks are not really read in quite the same way as fiction is read. Again, it’s utility. Many professional people have to read just to keep on top of the latest trends in their fields. They read. They read alot, but it is often mandatory reading for their careers. In a sense, I think it is just a sad reflection of modern life. People are just too damn busy.

    And lastly, I don’t think that all published fiction or nonfiction is crap. Though, I do think that much of the best writing is being done in nonfiction nowadays, such as politics and current events, biographys, etc..

    So don’t blame the publishing industry or the market of book buyers. Blame post modern life.
    Ah, and the all too easy entertainment industry.

  14. “Singularly philistine
    “Singularly philistine book”… Philistine is an interesting word.

    From ‘ “person deficient in liberal culture,” 1827, originally in Carlyle, popularized by him and Matthew Arnold, from Ger. Philister “enemy of God’s word,” Popularized in Ger. student slang as a contemptuous term for “townies,” and hence, by extension, “any uncultured person.” ‘

    [ I like the use of “liberal” in the definition… especially when linked to Steve’s comment “patronising cant from liberals” 🙂 ]

    What kind of person is labelled a “philistine”? Someone who disagrees with or is an enemy of The Culture, be that a religious one or a literary one or a social one. And what kind of person would label someone or something “philistine”? Someone who is worried…

    I don’t think I’ve ever labelled anything “philistine” in my life. And I know I distrust people who do.

  15. Good point about Victotian
    Good point about Victotian sentimentalism, Steve, and the Dickens thing, too.

    By the way, I discovered “The Kafka Project” link on your blog. What great site!

  16. Fair enough, Steve …
    Fair enough, Steve … certainly these issues cut both ways.

    I haven’t read John Carey’s book, but regardless of any spin various commenters here are putting on the book or on Jennifer’s article, I like the way the article focuses on direct remarks by several well-known authors. Something surprising and significant emerges from this assemblage of quotations, even if any interpretation that follows can be fairly called into question.

  17. Jenn, I think you’re
    Jenn, I think you’re explaining things through your own lifestyle. Realize, most people aren’t college graduates. Most people aren’t high school graduates. Yet Reader’s Digest (conservative pulp) has a circulation of 30 million. People Magazine flourishes, as do many celebrity gossip magazines, while literary magazines have much less readership. Somebody gots t’eddicate them folk. Um…that means us.

  18. Steve,

    I’m open to any

    I’m open to any criticism of the book, ’tis only fair. Although, John Carey was certainly no Philistine, but was or is ( is he still alive?) an Oxford grad, I do believe.

    My intention wasn’t to slander the various mentioned authors above. In fact, I can safely separate the art from the artist, just as I may separate President Clinton from Monica Lewsinsky’s rosy cheeks.

    I only found it a curious thing that the literary intelligentsia of that time actively sought to segregate their art from the masses.

  19. Interesting. Of course, “the
    Interesting. Of course, “the elite” and “intellectuals” are thrown about here almost interchangably. In America, intellectuals are largely exiled to live among the masses. But maybe that’s the point.

    There are both “literary” gaps and (ever-widening) economic gaps between the “elite” and the masses, intersecting in all sorts of ever-greater and stranger ways (Iraq, anyone?). I’m sure the economic elite would prefer less public education, not more.

    Some education is better than none, and more would be better, right? George Bernard Shaw seems a bit of a whiner in 1879, eh? Blame an 8-year old public education act for the failure of his manuscript? Okay…

  20. FYI: That “nobody” Knut
    FYI: That “nobody” Knut Hamsun won the Nobel Prize for Lit in 1920. Check out “Hunger”, written pre-1900 about a young writer slowly losing control. Or you and can just leave him to his “anonymity”.

  21. (Though, Kevin, TKG only
    (Though, Kevin, TKG only asked who reads Hamsun today, and the fact that he won a Nobel Prize in 1920 is no proof that anyone reads him today. However, as I posted above, it’s a fact that people read Hamsun today).

  22. Knut Hamsun said that
    Knut Hamsun said that literature should contain the “whisper of the blood, and the pleading of the bone marrow” which I think is pretty cool, although I didn’t know who he was until I just looked him up on Wikipedia. I love the things one can learn here at the Kicks.

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