11 May 2008

What kind of talent is required to please this mighty public?

Let us try to remember how fancy works in children; with what selective partiality it reads, leaving often the bulk of the book unrealised, but fixing on the rest and living it; and what a passionate impotence it shows - what power of adoption, what weakness to create. It seems to be not much otherwise with uneducated readers. They long, not to enter into the lives of others, but to behold themselves in changed situations, ardently but impotently preconceived. The imagination (save the mark!) of the popular author here comes to the rescue, supplies some body of circumstance to these phantom aspirations, and conducts the readers where they will. Where they will: that's the point; elsewhere they will not follow. When I was a child, if I came on a book in which the characters wore armour, it fell from my hand; I had no criterion of merit, simply that one decisive taste, that my fancy refused to linger in the middle ages. And the mind of the uneducated reader is mailed with similar restrictions. So it is that we must account for a thing otherwise unaccountable: the popularity of some of these great ones of the dust. In defect of any other gift, they have instinctive sympathy with the popular mind. They can thus supply to the shop-girl and the shoe-black vesture cut to the pattern of their naked fancies, and furnish them with welcome scenery and properties for autobiographical romancing. Even in readers of an upper class, we may perceive the traces of a similar hesitation; even for them a writer may be too exotic. The villain, even the heroine, may be a Feejee islander, but only on condition the hero is one of ourselves.
- Robert Louis Stevenson, “Popular Authors.”

3 comments:

  1. "They long, not to enter into the lives of others, but to behold themselves in changed situations, ardently but impotently preconceived. The imagination (save the mark!) of the popular author here comes to the rescue, supplies some body of circumstance to these phantom aspirations, and conducts the readers where they will"

    Sounds like in one of Stevenson's hashish-induced visions, he foresaw the advent of novels immediately adapted into movies (you know, like every Michael Crighton novel, which is helpfully stocked under the "Soon to be a major motion picture!" section at Waldenbooks).

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've never seen the difference between 'popular' and literary fiction put better, or more succintly.

    ReplyDelete