Capitalizing on Scandal

After Oscar Wilde’s remarkably public trial and subsequent imprisonment, Decadent authors and publishers faced the difficult task of navigating a literary landscape that marked their art as dangerous. My project will analyze how Leonard Smithers, a publisher and purveyor of rare, exotic, and pornographic books, took advantage of this dangerous decadence to further his own career. I will argue that Smithers was able to become a prominent publisher by capitalizing on the scandal surrounding Wilde’s trial in an effort to demonstrate how scandal shapes and redefines reputations as well as genres in the literary field of late Victorian England.

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?

Banerrji and the Bard

Among the many questions comedically posed by All About H. Hatter is the question of who we should (and shouldn’t) turn to for advice and guidance. When Banerrji offers guidance to Hatter, he likes to string together assorted Shakespeare quotes whenever he can, a habit which occasionally prompts Hatter to lash out, “I tell you, the Bacon-Shakespeare pictures won’t tally with Life today! Read the daily press! Information! I know Life” (95). Shakespeare, in Hatter’s opinion, is not relevant to the real life “information” that is depicted in the daily press and is therefore useless to him. Interestingly, whenever Hatter confronts Banerrji about his constant use of literary allusion, Banerrji either fails to understand or offers completely unrelated advice. For instance, when Banerrji responds to the outburst above he can only understand the tone of Hatter’s accusation, “I don’t understand what you have stated so vigorously. But I have unqualified faith as to your sincerity.” (95) Many of their conversations are similarly disjointed, perhaps because their views on the value of life vs. literature are unreconcilable.  

Banerrji positions himself as a cultured and influential figure and, despite his criticism of Banerrji, Hatter generally seems to buy into Banerrji’s claim to cultural authority since he almost always takes his advice (which comedically never ends well). I’m wondering why Desani chose to include so many references to Western literature and philosophy (I’m especially curious about the many bizarre Freudian moments). Are they there to enhance the comedic effect of the novel? Or is he perhaps asking us to question why we grant literature so much authority as opposed to the “information” of the daily press? And how does Desani’s depiction of Shakespearean influence function in comparison to the depictions of Shakespeare we’ve seen in Joyce and Woolf?

A Voice of One’s Own

In A Room of One’s Own Woolf emphasizes the importance of women writers finding an authorial voice unburdened by the formal and structural influences of great authors of the past. Throughout the essay, Woolf suggests that all authors are both “inheritors” and “originators” of their work (108). Literary masterpieces are therefore never fully original but are rather “the outcome of many years of thinking in common” (65). Woolf is very interested in breaking out of that common thinking in her own writing and seeks to instill this same urgency in her audience. 

Breaking out of literary traditions is no easy task, however, and Woolf illustrates that even the sentence structure we use is derivative, formulaic, and built by men, “Moreover, a book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes. And this shape too has been made by men out of their own needs for their own uses” (76). To write original content, a woman must “[break] the sequence” and simply “[write] like a woman” (90). 

And to find that unique voice, Woolf emphasizes the importance of blocking out the voices of dead authors as well as the hordes of bishops, deans, doctors, professors, and patriarchs all with strong opinions on how a woman ought to write (or not write). But even in her imagining of Mary Carmichael overcoming the pull of these voices to write some promising original sentences, Woolf concludes with the anticlimactic assessment, “She will be a poet, I said, putting Life’s Adventure, by Mary Carmichael, at the end of the shelf, in another hundred years’ time” (93).  

It seems like a room of one’s own and an annual income aren’t enough in the end to grant women writers autonomy. To become a truly autonomous writer, a woman must find a way to ignore the constant sound of critics and dead authors and find her own voice. But does Woolf even think this is possible? If not, how does a woman author create a unique voice (assuming she doesn’t own a printing press)?