Absolute Bestsellers

While reading Fiction and the Reading Public I kept trying to pin down what exactly Leavis’s concern is with the “middlebrow” and “absolute bestsellers” she investigates. Compared to Woolf’s critique of middlebrow writing in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” which primarily fixates on the form and writing style of a handful of authors, Leavis approaches these categories through an “anthropological study” of twenty-five authors. After grouping her responses into categories, Leavis goes on to make some sweeping generalizations about why someone might read a novel including, “to obtain vicarious satisfaction or compensation for life” or “to obtain assistance in the business of living” (48). While I’m confident this wasn’t Leavis’s intention, I found her reasons for reading quite funny. I can’t imagine any casual reader responding that they were driven to pick up The Sheik by a need to learn the “business of living.” Humor aside, I think it is telling that Leavis uses capitalistic language like “business” and “compensation” when attempting to identify motives for reading since it seems that at least part of Leavis’s discomfort with the phenomenon of the bestseller is that it strengthens what she sees as a vulgarizing connection between art and capitalism.

In her conclusion, Leavis argues that to resist the “herd prejudices” of the masses we must educate the youth to form a “conscious minority” of proper literary taste (271). While it is easy to dismiss Leavis as a classist/elitist purist, I think it is worth reflecting on how similar ideas of value influence what novels we deem worth teaching today. Why do we teach Ulysses and not The Sheik if the latter was such an “absolute bestseller,” for example? As distressing as Leavis’s account is, I think we still make value judgments about a literary work based on how pleasurable or difficult it is to read. What would happen if we assigned Harry Potter and not Lord of the Flies to middle schoolers? In other words, what is the benefit of teaching established “classics” that supposedly challenge students instead of modern bestsellers?

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