Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Orwellian Opinion

"Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion," George Orwell states this in response to Leo Tolstoy's criticism of Shakespeare's work.

Leo Tolstoy copyright by WikimediaIn his critique, Tolstoy wrote, "I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful aesthetic pleasure, but having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best: King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth, not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium..." He further characterized Shakespeare as "a bad dramatist and not a true artist at all."

George Orwell copyright by WikimediaTo this, Orwell wrote, "One's first feeling is that in describing Shakespeare as a bad writer he is saying something demonstrably untrue. But this is not the case. In reality, there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is 'good.' Artistic theories such as Tolstoy's are quite worthless, because they not only start out with arbitrary assumptions, but depend on vague terms ('sincere,' 'important,' and so forth) which can be interpreted in any way one chooses. Properly speaking one cannot answer Tolstoy's attack."

According to Orwell, the only criterion for the merit of a work of art is that it continues to be admired, and hence, the verdict on Shakespeare must be "not guilty," since forty years after Tolstoy's pamphlet Shakespeare remains as admired as ever.

After reading the essay, this is what I conclude for any piece of writing: Longevity as evidence of popularity—a crowdsourcing benchmark of literary merit.

Woman reading in film version of Northanger Abbey by Jane AustenSo whenever romance novels of hugely successful writers come under attack as lacking in literary gravitas, it's important to bear in mind what's really important: the opinions of an opinionated few or the opinions of the wide reading populace, speaking loudly with their hard earned money and even harder earned time. No arguments need to be made of good prose, nuanced imagery, complex emotions, accurate historicals details, etc. etc. The readers have spoken.