Thursday, June 07, 2007

Elitism vs The Common Touch: A Few Thoughts

I was watching a programme recently about modernism and non-modernism in fiction. The whole Virginia Woolf vs. Arnold Bennet thing. Virginia Woolf couldn't stand Bennet's common touch. Arnold Bennet wrote a lot of books, had plots and stories and beginnings, middles and endings. Woolf said she was more interested in the movement of her characters' minds than the story.

But it all comes down to whether Woolf was elitist in her high art disdain for Bennet's "common touch."

Or does it really?

Personally, I'd rather read Woolf than Bennet, just as I would rather read Ashbery than Armitage. Armitage is the contemporary Bennet of poetry: producing well-written popular (if not strictly populist) poetry that most people can identify with at some level. You know what an Armitage poem is about. Ashbery's poems, I guess, are more to do with the movement and the clutter of his own mind. They're not "about" anything, in the sense that they have a single definable subject. So who's being the more elitist?

You could say that someone who writes "populist" literature is simply writing for the usual lower-middle class expectations of the "general reader", but who is Ashbery writing for? People interested in "high art", whatever that is? But who are those people? Some of them, like me, are, frankly, working-class to the bone. But we just happen to like something rather different from the usual diet of realism and fairly naturalistic language. We like the sound of words for their own sake, the juxtaposition of words and phrases that aren't "supposed" to go together. We might have some critique in mind about the way language is used to uphold the status quo. But even Andrew Motion is aware of that function of language.

What made Woolf a modernist and Arnold Bennet an anti-modernist? I still haven't really puzzled it out, but I don't think at route it's to do with elitism. I suspect that Bennet had as many small-minded prejudices as did Woolf, probably to do with the working-classes and coals in the bath. Woolf was definitely eltitist; she was upper-middle class. We all have a tendency to look down on others.

But at heart, modernist writers are just interested in different things. I find it difficult to read novels that have too much story in them; the last great novel I read was by WG Sebald and seemed to involve a lot of walking around and not much actually happening. What goes on in the mind of his character seemed much more interesting to me than some kind of event happening.

The same is true of the poets I like: they're not giving me little stories, or little insights into the world; they're giving me both the moving of their minds, and a sense of language as something fluid, ever-changing and musical.

A lot of the first generation of modernists were elitist; but less so than their populist cousins? HG Wells, for all his popular novels and his socialism, was no less elitist than Woolf; both were advocates of getting rid of inferior specimens in the human race.

In the end, what interests you as a writer, whether you want to follow in Woolf's steps or Arnold Bennet's, is down to far more interesting factors than looking down your nose at all those "populist writers" and thinking you're special because nobody reads you.

1 comment:

Gists & Piths said...

Liked this piece. It reminded me of constant debates I have with a poetry buddy of mine, about whether pure enjoyment and poetic difficulty can go hand in hand. I don't think he's quite as convinced as I am that they can, but my feeling is, yes they can, absolutely. I never quite got Prynne till I started reading him aloud.

There's also a case for arguing that non-difficult or anti-elitist poetry is, in some ways, far more exclusive than supposedly avant garde or experimental work, because its meaning is already decided before the reader's even had a chance to make her own mind up; poets like Ashbery (big fan) or Tom Raworth (ditto) are way more liberating and inclusive, because their poetry feels like an open conversation to which the reader's invited. That could, of course, be nonsense, mind.