THE GREATEST COMMON DIVISOR
by William Lyon Phelps
Some distinguished novelists are like lofty peaks. Few ascend them and those who do breathe rarefied air. There are writers whose fame is apparently secure who have never had many readers, and there are writers who have an enormous public and no fame. George Meredith and Henry James were men of genius, and there will always be enough people of taste to save some of their books from oblivion; but neither of these authors made much money. Both Meredith and James would have liked to have a million readers; perhaps it is to their credit that they made no compromises to increase the sales of their works, perhaps they could not have succeeded in such an undertaking had they tried.
While in the long run it is popularity that determines a writer's fame-not only Shakespeare, but every first rate English poet has today many thousands of readers-there are also "trashy" books which sell like gasolene, and there are trashy books which do not sell at all. It is a comforting thought that the majority of trashy books have a smaller sale than masterpieces, and that the best book ever written has had, has, and will have the largest sale of all.
It won't do to
prefer posterity to popularity; posterity is more cruel to the average writer
than are his contemporaries. Shakespeare was the most popular Elizabethan
dramatist; Ben Jonson, the foremost press agent of his time, said that his
friend Shakespeare had surpassed all the writers of Greece and Rome, which was
exactly what John Dryden, the foremost press agent of his time, said of his
contemporary, Milton. Gray's Elegy, Byron's Childe Harold, Tennyson's
Kipling's Recessional, were popular two weeks after
their publication, and they are popular now.
In the long run the best books have the largest sales. In every age, however, there are certain novelists of prodigious vogue, whose works nevertheless are to readers of good taste negligible. The common people read them gladly and the Scribes and Pharisees regard them with scorn. When our high school teachers and junior college professors wish to relieve their systems of accumulated bile, they pour out before their sceptical pupils bitter denunciations of Harold Bell Wright, the late Gene Stratton Porter and Zane Grey. They try to persuade their flocks that the books by these writers are not interesting; but the flocks know that they are, and instead of despising these novelists, they lose confidence in their instructors.
Far be it from me to pretend that Mr. Wright and Mr. Grey are literary artists, or to enter the lists as a champion of their works. What I have read of them has not left me with an insatiable appetite for more. But here is a fact of interest to students of books and of human nature-of the "works" of Porter and of Wright over nine million copies have been sold, and as we rate five readers to every copy, each of these two worthies has an audience of forty-five million readers. What does this mean? Many will say it means that the public loves trash. I don't believe it; the majority of books are trash, and the majority of books do not sell. Some critics and some unsuccessful writers say that they could write just the same sort of thing if they would stoop to it; I don't believe it. The financial rewards of popularity are so great that many writers would produce tales of adventure if they were sure of a million readers.
It is possible that boys and girls read these books because of their good qualities rather than because of their defects. Why is it that these authors are Greatest Common Divisors? Why do they make the largest appeal to the largest number of people?
Well, in the first place they are novelists, and the foremost of recent novelists, Thomas Hardy, says that the novel should tell a story. The average school-boy knows that a book by Wright, Porter or Grey will have a good story. The majority of our novelists either will not or can not tell a story. All they have is a time plot, beginning with the smells the baby had in his cradle, of no interest to any one except the novelist, going on with his fights and loves at school, etc., etc. Most people are like the Sultan in the Arabian Nights, they love a good story; Wight, Porter and Grey furnish it. The lives of most boys and girls are not romantic or unusual; in the novel they get an escape from life, a change of air, a vacation; and there is nothing boys love more than a vacation. Again, however deficient in conduct boys and girls may be, they instinctively love courage, honour, truth, beauty, magnanimity; the novels of the Terrible Three all work for righteousness. In the eternal conflict between good and evil, these Greatest Common Divisors are on the right side; even if they do not know much about style, or much about psychology, or much about subtlety of motive, they do know the difference between right and wrong, something that some much be praised novelists seem to have forgotten or to think unimportant.
I do not believe the majority of supercilious critics and other cultivated mature readers began in early youth by reading great books exclusively; I think they read Jack Harkaway, and Old Sleuth, and the works of Oliver Optic and Horatio Alger. From these enchanters they learned a thing of importance-the delight of reading. Once having learned that having found that a book, easily procurable, is the key to happy recreation, they obtained a never-failing resource of happiness.
A similar thing is observable in poetry. If a boy learns to love highly exciting
narrative poetry, or pretty sentiments set to easy tunes, it is more probable
that he will later love great poetry than if he never caught the lilt of words
Nothing that I have said is at variance with one of my oft-expressed beliefs-those parents who are not only interested in the welfare of their children, but are capable of setting them a good example, do not need to use the Greatest Common Divisor so often. They can by sympathetic intercourse with their children, and by patience, bring them up from the start on the Bible, Shakespeare, Bunyan, Swift, Defoe and other writers of genius; but a large number of boys and girls come to our schools from uncultivated homes, and from parents who are stupid, or selfish, or silly; these children must learn the magic of books, and it is my belief that the makers of exciting stories, with sentiment laid on thick, with heroes and heroines who are brave, honourable and virtuous are performing a public service.