Why is literary fiction inevitably a poor seller? This question is at the core of John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses, Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939.
John Carey asserts that the English literary intelligentsia of this era made a conscious effort to segregate literary fiction from the newly literate (or semi-literate) mass culture produced by the late nineteenth century educational reforms to which many of the intelligentsia opposed. The Education Act of 1871 introduced universal elementary education in England. When a newspaper called the Daily Mail emerged in 1896 it carried the slogan 'The Busy Man's Paper' and announced its intention to 'give the public what it wants' This was in direct conflict to the belief that the public should be given what the intellectuals say they should be given. T.S. Eliot wrote in an essay:
There is no doubt that our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards...destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans.
The 1879 novel Immaturity by George Bernard Shaw was turned down by nearly every London publisher, and he concluded that the reason for its rejection was the newly adopted Education Act, which he proclaimed 'was producing readers who have never before bought books.'
Publishers of the time also did not want the 'excessively literary' George Eliot, but preferred the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde).
As populist newspapers like the Daily Mail prospered, European intellectual hostility to newspapers grew. In The Criterion in 1938, T.S Eliot declared that the effect of the daily newspapers on their readers was to 'affirm them as a complacent, prejudiced and unthinking mass'. Extensive campaigns against newspapers were abound. Critic F.R. Leavis wrote in Scrutiny of the mass media 'arousing the cheapest emotional responses,' declaring that 'Films, newspapers, publicity in all forms, commercially-catered fiction -- all offer satisfaction at the lowest level.' Evelyn Waugh satirised the new trend in popular culture in his novels Scoop and Vile Bodies.
To the highbrows of the time, it seemed that the masses were not fully alive. Many of the predominate literary icons of this period expressed clear hostility towards the explosive over-population of the third-world; and the triumph of hyperdemocracy and social power created by this newly created state. Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun's anti-democratic views are epitomized by his character Ivar Kareno, hero of the Kareno trilogy:
I believe in the born leader, the natural despot, the master, not the man who is chosen but the man who elects himself to be the ruler over the masses. I believe in and hope for one thing, and that is the return of the great terrorist, the living essence of human power, the Caesar.
Thomas Hardy wrote in 1887:
You may regard a throng of people as containing a certain small minority who have sensitive souls; these, and the aspects of these, being what is worth observing. So you divide them into the mentally unquickened, mechanical soulless; and the living, throbbing, suffering, vital, in other words into souls and machines, ether and clay.
D.H. Lawrence argues that only the elite truly live, while the proletariat merely survives:
Life is more vivid in the dandelion than in the green fern, or
than in the palm tree,
Life is more vivid in the snake than in the butterfly.
Life is more vivid in the wren than in the alligator...
Life is more vivid in me, than in the Mexican who drives the wagon for me.
Ezra Pound's complex Cantos are a good illustration of the fashion for obscurity in literature, a style that itself expressed contempt for the common man. In Pound's Cantos the multitudes and democratically elected leaders were a torrent of human excrement. The illustration of 'the great arse-hole' Pound contends, was a portrait of contemporary England.
A body of esoteric doctrine "defended from the herd" was adopted by a group of intellectuals who created a secret society called 'The Hermetic Students of the Golden Dawn' in 1890. This secret society fed the craving for power and distinction to soar the intellectual above the masses.
The contempt for the masses expressed by the literary icons of this period not only opposed universal education, but many also supported the ever-growing concept of eugenics as a means to control the overpopulation of inferior beings. Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection inadvertently led a new ethics most expressed in H. G. Wells' New Republic. Wells writes:
The new ethics will hold life to be a privilege and a responsibility, not a sort of night refuge for base spirits out of the void; and the alternative in right conduct between living fully, beautifully and efficiently will be to die. For a multitude of contemptible and silly creatures, fear driven and helpless and useless, unhappy or hatefully happy in the midst of squalor dishonor, feeble, ugly, inefficient, born of unrestrained lusts, and increasing and multiplying through the sheer incontinence and stupidity, the men of the New Republic will have little pity and less benevolence.
The entirety of John Carey's study is overwhelming, enlightening and extremely disturbing, especially as literary elitist tendencies may be an inevitable part of many intellectual communities, even today.