HYPNOTISED a few years ago by the bizarre spectacle of proles queuing to see a film about Virginia Woolf – ‘The Hours’ for all of you who live on Alpha Centauri – set me thinking about the vanished reputation of William Somerset Maugham. This supercilious writer, still commemorated in a much-prized literary award and in an all-too-honest portrait by Graham Sutherland, receives barely a mention these days, perhaps because his very disdain is regarded by hi-jacking academics as proof of artistic paucity, notwithstanding the dubious theory of value which continues to admit to the pantheon one David Herbert Lawrence, apart from anything else an advocate of extermination as a method of ridding perfumed literary society of philistines. Even on the basis of rejection by virtue of bad habit and squalid opinion, Maugham’s contempt is almost venial when compared with Lawrence’s eldritch whining. No – what did for Maugham in posterity was his wealth and his broad acclaim. He took P G Wodehouse and others with him. All made pots of money from writing, and no author wishing to be taken seriously can afford to rise too far above the mire. Fame might be the spur but it needs to be either posthumous or tempered by straitened circumstances.
This link between popular success and literary worth is fascinating. Every writer aspires to making a living out of letters yet associates comfort, its modest zenith, with a migration from the provenance of creativity. I think success was one of Cyril Connolly’s ‘enemies of promise’ – if it wasn’t, it should have been – and it can and does lure the writer away from the reason for writing. But towards those for whom this never happened, such as Arnold Bennett in contemporary fiction, vindictiveness was refined. Woolf, a monetarily poor writer cocooned within a warm patrimony, thought Bennett a mere shopkeeper, an upstart. Perhaps this was not so much because Bennett fictionalised humdrum existences, more a disappointment that in eschewing modernity of manner he had engineered a lifestyle to which he was not by nature, or the natural law of Bloomsbury, entitled. Bennett loved expensive yachts; Maugham, from his Riviera domicile, watched them glide on the jade-green waters of the Mediterranean. And it doesn’t really confuse the issue to discover that Maugham, too, thought Bennett vulgar.
An American post-modernist once suggested an alternative university English course from which the so-called ‘classics’ were barred. Among the moderns, Stephen King was preferred to Martin Amis, Danielle Steel to Joyce Carol Oates and so on, as far back as writers were able to be dredged from obscurity and critical damnation. Bulwer Lytton, I seem to recall, was the pick of the Victorians, and Kipling a major poet (though here there was a certain amount of wandering beyond bounds, probably because Kipling’s verses had been championed by T S Eliot). Agatha Christie assumed the status of literary genius and fought with Georges Simenon for laurels. The aim was to challenge ideas of who was worth cherishing and who deserved relegation. With a few exceptions he was contrasting a list of writers (the Chosen) who were widely read among the ‘non-literary’ and made money from their work with those who earned a moderate amount or none at all and subsidised their literary activity by other means (the Banished). But in asking us to decide which was the better course of study he was posing an interesting question, the answer to which dictates the kind of literary and cultural values to which educationists subscribe. While it is tempting to equate small readerships with literary worth and big ones with an unavoidable diminution of quality and scope, writers published only in small literary magazines may be considered, ipso facto, as much incompetent as undiscovered; Graham Greene and Dickens, on the other hand, were just a couple whose well-rounded and seriously significant productions were not, according to the cultural taste-makers, corrupted by popularity.
Two factors come into play in compiling our own lists: humility and – one has to resort to cliché – the courage of our convictions. The former requires us at least to consider received opinion, the latter demands that we justify our choice. The film critic Pauline Kael once demolished King’s reputation by saying that, since his sole artistic intention was to shock, it followed that the really successful horror writer was the one who induced a cardiac arrest in the reader or the cinemagoer, clearly and inevitably a reductio ad absurdum. In other words, unless one could identify an intriguing sub-text, even one focusing on the author’s psychosis, every King story was ridiculous and, turned sideways on, would become invisible. With this in mind, one cannot treat King seriously. Nor, for that matter, his antecedents and his disciples.
For the purposes of random thoughts such as these, the estimation of virtue in fiction, short or otherwise, might be usefully condensed to this test of perceptibility. Does a story recede in value when we begin to examine its supports? Is it simply erected to divert us and, having done so, does it collapse in the breeze? Or does it possess sturdy and infinite dimensions?
We shouldn’t deny Maugham his riches or overlook Lawrence’s chilling panaceas; but we should be prepared to admit that though wealth and arrogance are not necessarily obstacles to profound thought and ecumenical vision, they sometimes are.