THERE are two main currents, two streams of tendency, in the popular taste for literature, although only one is usually visible to the eye of the superficial observer. The first and more obvious appears in the advertisements of publishers, in the lists of “best-selling books, ” in the columns of current criticism. If we were to depend exclusively upon these sources of knowledge, we should be forced to conclude that all the world was engrossed in the perusal of modern fiction. The triumphs of those who number their readers by the hundred thousand are dazzling to the unaccustomed mind. Such rapid and enormous sales would have been inconceivable a few years ago. At best they were confined to books of exceptional interest. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we know, is the classical example of well-nigh universal circulation; but it did not leap to its supremacy at a single bound and keep the presses hot for weeks to supply the demand. In these days one could not count on the fingers of both hands the novels which have reached this distinction within a twelvemonth. It is undeniable, then, that writers of fiction at the present time can command larger audiences than any of their predecessors, and that success in reaching these audiences is more easily attained than ever before. And it is equally undeniable that many of the volumes they produce have little artistic value.
Is there really any connection whatever between popularity and merit ? Perhaps it is too natural for critics who try to keep their heads among the loud hurrahs which greet the favorites of the moment to denounce these favorites somewhat indiscriminately, and to conclude that the novel which every one is reading is ipso facto unworthy of serious attention. The truth is, rather, that in this, as in other matters, we are eclectic in our enthusiasm, and permit the sun of our approval to stream alike on the just and on the unjust. All experience denies the assumption that the great books of the world have not been appreciated by the multitude. If sometimes in our day it seems as if these books were neglected, the blame may lie more with our methods of instruction in literature than in the perversity of the uninstructed. But certainly a fine critical judgment at first hand is not to be expected of the public at large. It will take what is provided for it without much hesitation. If “every one ” is reading a book that is enough. Thus the excellence of the “best-selling books ” might vary from the standard of Miss Marie Corelli to that of Mr. Thomas Hardy. It is doubtless a subject for congratulation, on the whole, that the circulation of the bound volume has reached a point where it rivals the circulation of the daily newspaper. For the same agencies that float the trash serve also to keep in the current the complete and rounded work of art.
Possibly a nicer choice might be exercised by the uncritical if the reviewers for their part were less given to “a derangement of epitaphs.” He who seeks light from them will find Cimmerian darkness. It is idle to put the responsibility upon the publisher, whose separation of the sheep from the goats is provisional and commercial, who may justly be expected to maintain a decent aesthetic and ethical level, but who cannot be a competent judge in his own suit. Criticism has the office of selection ; and at a time when it appears in every guise it should be especially effective ; whereas the melancholy fact is that, with a few honorable exceptions, we hear little concerning each new defendant but one loud swelling chorus of praise. Not to speak tropically, criticism is becoming rapidly incompetent to guide us.
Much may fairly be said against the slating habits of the older critics. No doubt rank injustice has often been done by the sharp words of those who preferred being brilliant to being honest. Nor has the reviler, whether vocal on Saturday or another day, utterly vanished. But criticism as a whole would be benefited by a more general admixture of judicious severity. Every writer cannot be an incipient Thackeray; every new novel cannot be a work of genius. It would be unkind to some of our appraisers of literary values to preserve the tickets they affix to the literary goods of a year. A hundred volumes “of absorbing interest,” a score “of transcendent power, ” a dozen which are “permanent additions to the great novels of the world, ” are a simple comingin for a generation so clever as this. Seriously, all this profusion of admiring adjectives indicates a lamentable lack of the sense of proportion. It is not strange that readers are confused and take all geese for swans. The space given to notices of novels, too, would lead the unwary to fancy that these monopolize the domain of literary art. Nothing is more foolish, of course, than the traditional outcry against the reading of novels as mere intellectual dissipation. Fiction, whether in prose or in poetry, has been the chosen mode of utterance of some of our finest minds. It doubtless will always occupy, and rightly, the first place. But we should demand a reasonable measure of truth to life and fidelity to art, and these are what we seldom find in the popular tale of the moment. Indeed, it would be base flattery to call the ordinary compounder of romance an artist at all. His decoction may be harmless ; in most cases it probably is; but let us moderate our transports when we recommend it as a specific for blue devils — or for insomnia. On the whole, the old-time slating did less harm than the contemporary rapture. It never really killed genius; the story of Keats and the Quarterly Reviewer was long ago discredited. When Mr. Lang says that he proposes to treat modern incompetents as Macaulay treated Montgomery, he commands approval from those who still believe that the dignity of literature is not an empty phrase.
Yet the second current of taste, though less swift and strong than the first, and sometimes invisible to the superficial observer, may none the less develop unexpected force. There are readers who have other ideals than those of the popular journal, and critics who have other standards. The general level of culture may be lower than we would have it, but ten righteous men may be found even in the most debased cities of the plain. The figures which spell success for the modern novelist do not make up the whole account. We may arrive at a fairer estimate of public preferences by noting the large and constant sales of reprints of the classics. There has been of late a remarkable increase in the number of these reprints; nor has it been confined to our gods or even to our giants. It would not be in the least surprising to discover that Shakespeare and Thackeray are still among our “best-selling ” authors. If we take the novelists only, we shall have to confess that many writers too hastily pronounced unread, and consigned to oblivion down among the dead men, have shown surprising signs of continued vitality. The revived vogue of Jane Austen is no longer a novelty; perhaps Charlotte Brontë never lost her hold upon sentimental girlhood; Cranford has long been an accepted classic. But even the warmest admirers of Trollope had begun to feel that his gifts — hardly second in some respects to Thackeray’s own — had not sufficed to save him with the present generation. Once again, however, his name creates a stir of interest; and his singularly vivid and vital characters, Mrs. Proudie, Archdeacon Grantly, Lily Dale, and the rest, are no longer caviare to all but the chosen few. The fact probably is that Trollope has always retained an audience ; on more than one occasion I have found him an unexpected bond of sympathy with some one whom I should never have suspected of caring for him. When Mrs. Oliphant died, unkind gibes were flung at her. She had written herself out, we were told ; no one read her in these days ; her books would soon be forgotten. Carlingford was to be blotted from the map, and the ancient kingdom of Fife was to lose one of its most loving chroniclers. The prediction so far may seem to be verified ; the purveyors of “literary gossip ” care nothing for the creator of a whole world of living figures. Yet, as in Trollope’s case, I have frequently come across those who care for her as I do, and it would surprise some of those who decry her merits to find how constant is the demand for her novels among cultivated readers. As with these writers, so with others: Reade, Bulwer, and not a few others down the list, even to G. P. R. James and Ainsworth, may yet have their day again despite the immense flood of contemporary fiction.
It is unnecessary to assume, of course, that the only good authors are dead authors. Undue depreciation of the literature of the day may be quite as futile as undue approval, though it is apt to be less mischievous in its effects. But it would certainly be well for those who trumpet so loudly the praises of the favorite of the moment to remember that there were emperors before Cæsar.
Literary taste in the highest sense may always be the possession of the few; but even the many may have keener perceptions than they are sometimes credited with having. If the appetite for poor fiction is discouraging, let us not forget that other dishes in the menu are not wholly neglected. There has been a gratifying demand for history and biography of late years. To unaccustomed readers such volumes may have a portentous look; but familiarity will breed ease. It is here that the heads of public libraries can do good service. In more than one such institution the experiment has been tried of directing inquirers by means of carefully prepared lists to works that are within the capacity of any person of ordinary education. One who would be dismayed by the formidable array of the voluminous Dr. Gardiner or repelled by the serious and philosophic pages of Mr. Lecky, or even unequal to the sustained attention demanded by masters of a fluent style like Froude and Macaulay, might still find in the briefer books now so frequent both pleasure and profit. This is one of the chief advantages, perhaps, of the many excellent series of historical and biographical studies which are now being issued. The volumes contained in them are, as a rule, both entertaining and scholarly, and they tell the unprofessional reader practically all he wishes or needs to know. Of course it may be said that history and biography are only incidentally literature, and that their influence upon culture is indirect ; even so they may save from utter intellectual anæmia minds to which fiction of the higher order makes slight appeal. From the literature of knowledge, to use De Quincey’s admirable classification, to the literature of power, it is only a step. The chance that it will be taken is not altogether remote. But there seems to be no good reason for believing that a taste for poor novels will easily develop into a taste for good. That argument is sometimes advanced. There is a theory, especially prevalent among the half-educated who are so large a class in these days, that any kind of reading is better than none at all. Parents rejoice that their children are “fond of books,” as if the printed page were in itself a guarantee of merit The fact is that this fondness may in the end do more harm than dislike would be able to accomplish. If a boy or girl grows up without having learned the elementary principles of discrimination, the probability of learning them later in life is exceedingly small. Nothing is more important than a wise supervision of the reading of the young. The lack of all interest in literature among the mass of adults may be traced in the last analysis to the lack of this supervision. I do not believe that any one was ever admitted to a genuine appreciation of the best books by the back door. The person whose taste is formed on trash will have a trashy taste to his dying day. The most that can be done is to divert him from his natural bent, to add to his mental equipment some few valuable ideas. It is worth while, of course, to do this; but how much more worth while it would have been to guide him aright at the start!
As a matter of fact, the ordinarily intelligent mind, if habits of desultory or unprofitable reading be not too firmly fixed, may quite as easily be turned to the good as to the bad. We are too apt to assume, as I have intimated, that the admirers of Miss Corelli could not in any case have cared for Mr. Hardy. But the very boy who devours eagerly the juvenile literature (so called) of the day might have become absorbed in the pages of Shakespeare or Scott had any one put those authors into his hands. A great mistake is made in “adapting ” too freely the reading of children. It is quite unnecessary that they should understand everything they read. If they get confused or even ridiculous ideas, that is of little consequence; larger knowledge will come by and by, and meanwhile the imagination has been stimulated by the light that never was on sea or land. What we are able to do for men and women in the way of increasing their love for the best in literature must be mainly remedial. But with boys and girls we have a freer and fuller opportunity. Education, then, is one of the real forces in literature, and perhaps the education that is obtained by those who have a good library to range through is the most potent of all. Even in our schools, usually the last to feel the impulse of new life, the principle of “ supplementary reading ” is recognized, and the best authors are more and more brought within the vision. This is a departure which must in time remedy in some degree the defects in home training and sharpen that appetite for wholesome literary food of which I have spoken. It is from the existence of such an appetite that a hopeful view of the future of literature may be most plausibly derived. In other words, the greatest authors will become also the most popular authors under any fair system of competition. The fact that they are even now read so widely, despite all the influences in favor of books of merely passing interest, is sufficient testimony to the truth of this conclusion.
Criticism is, or used to be, a real force in literature, and the critics have a duty in this matter which they should not forget. Unfortunately the tendency to universal praise has become almost overwhelming; comparatively few writers have the ability or the disposition to withstand it. Yet now and again some one is found who in a humble and anonymous way is doing good service. Such an one may be a real force in literature. It has seemed at times, indeed, as if the day of his usefulness were over. The desire for a famous name has set eminent politicians and distinguished capitalists to discoursing in print on Shakespeare, taste, and the musical glasses. Unfortunately success in one line does not imply capacity in all; and I cannot help feeling that current criticism has been on the whole debased by those who were supposed to give it splendor. It is easy, however, to overestimate the strength of evil tendencies. The truth must never be forgotten that the mass of mankind is sound at heart; and this applies to literature as to other things. The influence of a critical journal of high repute cannot be calculated, and one who has conducted such a journal may die almost unknown to the general public and still deserve a place high among the really useful men of his time. There are still such journals and such men, and we must count them among the real forces in literature. Their work may sometimes seem wasted, but it is not lost. Of the two streams of tendency of which I have spoken it is only the second that flows on unbroken. Time, as one of the finest of our poets has said, is the only righteous judge, and its verdicts mock our own. No modern methods of “booming, ” no forgetfulness of critical duty, can keep the perishable from perishing.