Letter: When popularity meant quality

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Sir: Peter Guttridge, in his otherwise admirable and thoughtful account (11 July) of the debate at the Cottesloe between Ken Follett, Maeve Haran and Deborah Moggach on 'The Culture of the Bestseller', appears to have taken for granted what Ms Haran and Ms Moggach (but not Mr Follett) also evidently take for granted: that there is always bound to be a necessary and inevitable trade-off between literary quality and popularity.

It is important to remember that the notion of such a trade-off is an entirely 20th-century invention. The idea would have seemed absurd to Victorian novelists and their reading public. Charles Dickens and George Eliot were not only the most popular novelists of their generation, they were also the best.

Dickens, in particular, does not appear ever to have been troubled by feeling a need to ration the remarkable number of sheer, gripping events in his novels in order to make his books more 'literary'.

The point, surely, is not (as Mr Follett's agent, Al Zuckerman, suggests) that 19th-century readers merely approached books 'unhurriedly' and (as Mr Zuckerman seems to imply) were prepared to put up with literary waffle, but that the giants of the 19th century knew - as did Shakespeare - the great secret of presenting intensely absorbing, even 'sensational', drama by conveying the kind of deep characterisation and sense of universality that are seen as the hallmarks of literature.

Until another Charles Dickens or George Eliot appears among us, the rather fatuous dichotomy between what is 'good' literature and what is popular will presumably continue to infest the fiction-writing world.

Yours sincerely,

JAMES ESSINGER

Canterbury, Kent

12 July

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