The Spice of Life and Other Essays/Fiction as Food, Part 2

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The first part of this combined two-part essay was first published in 1934, is under copyright in the United States and is for that reason omitted

I was a great reader of novels until I began to review them. when I naturally left off reading them. I do not mean to admit that I did them any injustice; I studied and sampled them with the purpose of being strictly fair; but I do not call that `novel reading' in the old enchanting sense. If I read them thoroughly I still read them rapidly; which is quite against my instincts for the mere luxury of reading. When I was a boy and really had a new adventure story, when I was a young man and read my first few detective stories, I did not enjoy precipitation, but actually enjoyed delay. The pleasure was so intense that I was always putting it off. For it is one of the two or three big blunders in modern morality to suppose that the strongest eagerness expresses itself in extravagance. The strongest eagerness always expresses itself in thrift. That is why the French Revolution was French and not English; why the careful peasants have turned the world upside-down, while the careless labourers have cheerfully left it as it was. When a child's soul is in the most starry ecstasy of greed he desires to have his cake, not to eat it. I am English myself, and I have never managed to be thrifty about anything else.

But about my early novel reading I was as thrifty as a French peasant - and as greedy. I loved to look at the mere solid bulk of a sensational novel as one looks at the solid bulk of a cheese; to open the first page, dally with the first paragraph, and then shut it again, feeling how little pleasure I had lost as yet. And my favourite novelists are still those great nineteenth-century novelists who give an impression of bewildering bulk and variety, Scott or Dickens or Thackeray. I have artistic pleasure as keen or keener, I have moral sympathy as intense or more intense with many latex writers; with the hard-hitting mot juste of Stevenson's stories or the insurgent irony of Mr. Belloc's. But Stevenson has one fault as a novelist, that he must be read quickly. Novels like Belloc's Mr. Burden must not only be read quickly but fiercely; they describe a short, sharp struggle; the mood both of writer and reader is heroic and abnormal, like that of two men fighting a duel. But Scott, Thackeray, and Dickens had the mysterious trick or talent of the inexhaustible novel.

Even when we have come to the end of the story we somehow feel that it is endless. People say they have read Pickwick five times or fifty times or five hundred times. For my part I have only read Pickwick once. Since then I have lived in Pickwick; walked into it when and where I chose, as a man walks into his club. But whenever I have walked in, it seemed to me that I found something new. I am not sure that stringent modern artists like Stevenson or Mr. Belloc do not actually suffer from the strictness and swiftness of their art. If a book is a book to be lived in, it should be (like a house to be lived in) a little untidy.

Apart from such chaotic classics as these, my own taste in novel reading is one which I am prepared in a rather especial manner, not only to declare, but to defend. My taste is for the sensational novel, the detective story, the story about death, robbery and secret societies; a taste which I share in common with the bulk at least of the male population of this world. There was a time in my own melodramatic boyhood when I became quite fastidious in this respect. I would look at the first chapter of any new novel as a final test of its merits. If there was a murdered man under the sofa in the first chapter, I read the story. If there was no murdered man under the sofa in the first chapter, I dismissed the story as tea-table twaddle, which it often really was. But we all lose a little of that fine edge of austerity and idealism which sharpened our spiritual standard in our youth. I have come to compromise with the tea-table and to be less insistent about the sofa. As long as a corpse or two turns up in the second, the third, nay even the fourth or fifth chapter, I make allowance for human weakness, and I ask no more. But a novel without any death in it is still to me a novel without any life in it. I admit that the very best of the tea-table novels are great art - for instance, Emma or Northanger Abbey. Sheer elemental genius can make a work of art out of anything. Michelangelo might make a statue out of mud, and Jane Austen could make a novel out of tea - that much more contemptible substance. But on the whole I think that a tale about one man killing another man is more likely to have something in it than a tale in which, all the characters are talking trivialities without any of that instant and silent presence of death which is one of the strong spiritual bonds of all mankind. I still prefer the novel in which one person does another person to death to the novel in which all the persons are feebly (and vainly) trying to get the others to come to life.

But I have another and more important quarrel about the sensational novel. There seems to be a very general idea that the romance of the tomahawk will be (or will run the risk of being) more immoral than the romance of the teapot. This I violently deny. And in this I have the support of practically all the old moral traditions of our civilization and of every civilization. High or low, good or bad, clever or stupid, a moral story almost always meant a murderous story. For the old Greeks a moral play was one full of madness and slaying. For the great medievals a moral play was one which exhibited the dancing of the devil and the open jaws of hell. For the great Protestant moralists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a moral story meant a story in which a parricide was struck by lightning or a boy was drowned for fishing on a Sunday. For the more rationalistic moralists of the eighteenth century, such as Hogarth, Richardson, and the author of Sandford and Merton, all agreed that shocking calamities could properly be indicated as the result of evil doing; that the more shocking those calamities were the more moral they were. It is only in our exhausted and agnostic age that the idea has been started that if one is moral one must not be melodramatic.

But I believe that sensational novels are the most moral part of modern fiction, and I believe it upon two converging lines, such as make all real conviction. It is, I think, the fact that melodramatic fiction is moral and not immoral. And it is, I think, the abstract truth that any literature that represents our life as dangerous and startling is truer than any literature that represents it as dubious and languid. For life is a fight and is not a conversation.