A yawning gap in the literary market

Click to follow
THE GREAT thing is to spot a gap in the market. That's what the chap who started Wordsworth Classics did when he realised that there were plenty of people, worldwide, who would buy, say, Charlotte Bronte's Villette if it was horribly produced, nastily printed and priced at 99p.

Slightly late in the day, Penguin realised that it was missing out on that market, and launched a series covering many of the same titles. Penguin Popular Classics, equally cheap, are sold in remainder shops in exactly the same way as Wordsworth Classics - stacked in piles or strewn around in bins, rather than placed vertically on shelves. I remember the first time I saw Wordsworth I thought they must be the left- over stock of some failed business venture. Quite the opposite - this is the trend for the future.

And I, too, I'm proud to say, have spotted a gap in the market - a little gap, all of my own, ready to exploit. My series will be called Penguin Unpopular Classics, and it will sell even cheaper and look even nastier that the Wordsworth volumes. It consists of all those works which come with great reputations but are, in fact, unbearable.

To launch a list like this you need to start with a splash. I'm offering, as number one in the Penguin Unpopular Classics list, 1,200 pages of Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers, and I'll price it at 17p. It's a book so legendarily boring that if you open a copy in an air-conditioned hotel people get bored stiff all along the corridor.

Number Two is a book which ought, perhaps, to be more unpopular than it is. It's Carlyle's Miscellaneous Essays (3 volumes, and I'm offering it at 49p the set) containing the appalling essay 'The Nigger Question' (vol 3, p 463 if you can't wait for the new edition, and if, like me, you once bought a complete set of Carlyle on a wet afternoon in Great Yarmouth because 'it seemed a snip at the time').

Number three is a volume of immense historical importance which nobody reads unless they have to - namely the collected poetical works of Petrarch. There are other promising, famous but unreadable Italian poets, but I've no time to mention them now because an objection has already been raised to this list: where are the women? So, quickly, number four is Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, and number five - again a work of vast significance - is Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

As a matter of fact, Uncle Tom's Cabin is just the sort of work (famous and out of copyright) that might well appear in Wordsworth Classics. And my next choice, the aforementioned Villette, will appear three times on the Penguin list: as a Penguin Classic, as a cheap Penguin Popular Classic, and as an even cheaper Penguin Unpopular Classic. It's always on the shelves, but I've never noticed anyone voluntarily show any sign of having read it.

So far my list has sexual balance but no historical bottom. Step forward please numbers seven, Demosthenes, eight, Cicero, and nine, Ovid - deplorable authors in every way. But I see now the list is badly skewed again. We need a more solid grounding in the English classical tradition.

Quickly, then, number 10, the complete works of Addison (including his worthless poems and the play Cato), and 11, Steele. So now we've got all those Spectator essays which used to be so widely reprinted and read, including that 'much loved' figure Sir Roger de Coverley.

Still in England, George Meredith shyly offers any one of a number of novels, but perhaps The Ordeal of Richard Feverel will do, while George Borrow submits a celebrated work which, while often seen on shelves, seems to defy consumption, namely The Bible in Spain. (Lavengro we will find room for later.)

Another George, please. Yes, it's George Eliot's Romola, followed by a couple of American corkers (I want this series to play well in the States) - Herman Melville's Pierre and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun. Mention of the poetical works of Richard Greenleaf Whittier (always seen on dusty shelves) and (a trusty old Signet volume) Longfellow's Evangeline (all English poems written in hexameters are intolerable) leaves one wondering, however, how we could have reached number 18 on our list while hardly mentioning the dramatic arts. What about a one-volume selection of Romantic drama from the pens of Byron, Coleridge and Keats? and what about, number 20, Tennyson's plays?

Now I've got somethimg even better up my sleeve. For I see from my shelves that somewhere along the line I've acquired the complete dramatic works of Bjornstjerne Bjornson, plus his letters, translated from Norwegian into German] Plus not one but two Everyman volumes of his plays. Bjornstjerne Bjornson is exactly the kind of stuff that Penguin Unpopular Classics should be able to chance its arm with just once in a while. Obscure, you may feel, but every well-planned and balanced list of this kind should have its moments of inspired unpredictability.

This is the essential philosophy of Penguin Unpopular Classics. One week people think: 'Oh they're really scraping the bottom of the barrel if they're down to Bjornstjerne Bjornson.' The next week we bounce back with an absolutely mainstream classic author - Flaubert and The Temptation of St Anthony, a work which, when he read it to his friends, prompted the judgement: 'We think you should throw it in the fire and never speak of it again.'

Lamb's Essays come next. I know Virginia Woolf commends them in A Room of One's Own, but the things wrong with her style in that book are the things she got from the likes of Lamb. If you want a horrible time, try Lamb's essay called 'Old China'. Lamb has that important quality for the best unpopular classic - to have been once immensely well known, then left high and dry by a shift in taste.

Coleridge thought nothing of Byron would survive, but perhaps he hadn't paid much attention to Don Juan at the time. Or perhaps he thought it too wicked. In fact, Don Juan and the letters are Byron's lasting works. Most of the rest of the poetry is perfect Unpopular Classic material.

It forms volume 24, while the quarter-century is completed by that biggest best- seller of former times, now mostly unread save in 'versions' and abridgements - John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress.

And we haven't even scratched the surface of German or French literature. Where is Schiller? Where is Goethe? Where are the voluminous poems of Victor Hugo? But the secret of a great list is its staying-power. I plan for 100 titles at least, and have obviously shared only my preliminary thoughts. Number 100 must of course be something exceptional. I thought there would be a strong case for the King James Version of the Bible - largely unread but incessantly talked up, a perfect example of the kind of unpopularity I have in mind.