In 1851 a novel by an obscure American made its quiet debut. It did not turn out to be a best-seller. Exactly 40 years later, after the death of its author, the New York Times stated, “There has died and been buried in this city, during the current week…a man who is so little-known even by name to the generation now in the vigor of life that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and that of only three or four lines.” Herman Melville was then known only as an ex-sailor who had described life among the cannibals of the South Sea. Oh, and incidentally, he also wrote a few unsuccessful novels. One was about a big whale.
When F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940, unsold copies of The Great Gatsby were still in the publisher’s warehouse. The man who today is iconic with the zeitgeist of the Roaring Twenties experienced only relatively modest success in his lifetime, and most of that was for magazine potboilers forgotten today.
It’s interesting to note the letter Fitzgerald sent to his publisher when he finished the work: “I think that at last I’ve done something really my own, but how good ‘my own’ is remains to be seen.”
Such self-doubt! Nowadays we live in a very different universe.
I’ve always been amused by the term “Instant classic,” because it’s an inherent contradiction. A classic endures. It’s the exact opposite of instant.
And we really don’t know what’s going to endure.
I often think I would like to go 50 or 100 years into the future and look at what’s still in print, or byte, or whatever the format is by then. Will Harry Potter still be a massive favorite? Will teens be devouring Bella and Edward’s romance? Or will the standard-bearers be titles we have never heard of, or are only modestly popular today?
It’s hard to say, because what determines popularity has changed in the last decade or so—something almost no one has noticed or at least commented on. Used to be there were people in society who were entrusted to know a little more about their given subject than anyone else. Don’t get me wrong: critics have never been entirely popular, and have often been vilified. But in the past most people accepted the general concept of expertise. Artistic canons were not considered a product of the devil. The critics, whose job was to see more product in his area than we possibly could and have greater experience with it than we had time for, were taken seriously.
Today that’s changed. Critics are so irrelevant that Yahoo’s movie page no longer even links to their reviews. Most magazines of criticism have gone belly-up or become unabashed cheerleaders for their industries. The dean of movie critics, Roger Ebert, has recently announced his TV show has gone on hiatus because it’s out of money. No one reads professional reviewers anymore. Art criticism is dead, having been replaced by art promotion. In this age of the Internet and instant marketing, the voice of the people matter, because collectively we’re supposed to be so smart.
In 1813 a new symphony was premiered by Ludwig van Beethoven. It was the single biggest success in his career, and sent the crowd into wild delirium. To put it in modern terms, Beethoven rocked the house. He was now the number one favorite composer among listeners in Vienna and probably the rest of Europe as well.
The critics, however, hated it. And they still do.
Today this work isn’t even found among his nine numbered symphonies, and it’s almost never performed. This “tenth” symphony, called Wellington’s Victory or sometimes The Battle of Vitoria, is so abysmal that admirers of the composer would rather just forget that he wrote it, and we tell ourselves he did it for altruistic reasons (as a benefit to raise money for wounded soldiers). The motivation may have been laudatory, but it doesn’t change the fact that, like “We Are The World,” the music itself is horrible.
Now imagine if the people instead of the critics were allowed to decide Beethoven’s canon. That little gem called the Fifth Symphony likely would go by the wayside, not to mention the late string quartets and piano sonatas, today largely regarded as the peak of instrumental music, not just by Beethoven, but by anyone.
To be fair, the critics didn’t get those works immediately either. But they eventually did. The public took longer. A lot longer. About a hundred years.
As another great composer, Gustav Mahler, once commented about his immediate lack of a fan base, “Someday my time will come.” It has. And without Twitter, too.
The audience did not bring these works to the forefront. As un-PC as it is to say today, critical consensus did.
It’s harder to know what from this era will await us in 2060 or 2100. Will tweets and “Likes” determine our future canons? Will everything in life be a popularity contest? Will the smart money say Salieri was really the great one, with Mozart only liked by “elitists” and “pretentious people”?
I recall an interview a while ago wherein a very popular writer of “chick lit” novels said the critics who derided him did so not because he is a bad writer, but because they were “jealous” of his success. Well, no, take my word for it, he is a bad writer. But putting oneself in the position of authority is very unstylish today. It sets one up for all sorts of personal attacks. It’s classist, racist, sexist, elitist, and a hole bunch of other -ists. The masses have wisdom, we’re told again and again. So siddown and shaddup.
That writer I just mentioned stands in very sharp contrast to Fitzgerald, who wrote his publisher he hoped “his own” was any good. (Woolf said something almost identical after finishing Mrs. Dalloway.)
I like the opening sentence in the editor’s preface of the Gatsby that I own: “The Great Gatsby does not proclaim the nobility of the human spirit; it is not politically-correct; it does not reveal how to solve the problems of life; it delivers no fashionable or comforting messages. It is simply a masterpiece.” Amen.
One of the things I worry about when ordinary people are judge, jury and executioner is that, like children in a bakery, we are going to want what makes us feel good. What’s wrong with that? The same thing that’s wrong with eating cake for every meal. Yes, the brain rots too.
This is why we used to turn to teachers and critics for some guidance and perspective that’s outside of our necessarily limited sphere. When I want an opinion on a construction project, I ask a contractor, not my neighbor. Sure “experts” are wrong sometimes: they’re human. But millions of Twitterers and Facebookers are wrong too, and with them the wrongness is multiplied and projected unchecked. There’s this belief of collective intelligence, that the opinion of millions has more value than the lonely one. Some people were astonished when grandmaster Garry Kasparov beat millions of who’d logged in to collectively “challenge” him in chess in Kasparov vs. the World. But anyone who was surprised doesn’t understand how the bell curve works. And I wouldn’t want any of those people deciding what’s an instant classic for me.