Thursday, June 21, 2018

What's so wrong with a little mediocrity?

About a month or so ago there was a spirited defence of W. H. Smith as a Bookseller after it came low in a customer satisfaction survey. For what it's worth I like Smiths. My local one has the post office just past the books so I'm in there sort of regularly even though it's in a slightly depressing basement, and there's generallybsomething to be tempted by.

I also followed Lionel Shriver's attack on Penguin's Diversity project, which if nothing else has at least given Penguin's diversity project and Lionel Shriver a whole lot more publicity then they might otherwise have had. There's a whole lot of things to take issue with in Shriver's original article, but the thing that both the storms in a teacup have left me thinking is that not great hooks deserve a bit more appreciation.

The majority of my childhood library must have been made up of Enid Blyton books, they're certainly the ones I have the clearest memories of. I've never revisited them, mostly because I think the magic would be gone for me now, but at the time the books I loved the most were the ones that most closely reflected my own life. If it featured farming, or islands, it was a winner.

I'm also thinking that those Enid Blyton's must have been as formulaic as the Mills & Boons that I used to share with my grandmother. Or maybe they had more in common with the well worn conventions of the golden age detective fiction I've also loved since my early teens when I first found Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.

Either way there are times, and currently it's most of the time, when what I want to read is something easy, undemanding, and familiar. Maybe even something a little bit trashy - and there's nothing wrong with that. I'm also lucky that as a middling class, middle aged, white woman there's no shortage of books good, bad, and in between, that reflect me back to myself sufficiently to hold my interest.

That's the reason I love Virago Modern Classics, and Persephone books so much -they're reflecting the voices of women more or less like me, back to me. It was so exciting to find those voices, and every one of those books has it's merits, even if I judge some of them to be decidedly mediocre in literary terms. The point is that I want all of those voices to get a full sense of that history, and lucky me - they're increasingly available. Who doesn't deserve to be able to find the same?

I expect the books that Penguin's WriteNow mentoring scheme produces will thoroughly deserve their place on any shelf (and also, look at the Peirene Now project for consistently high quality, challenging, and diverse voices) but even if the project produced some decidedly mediocre work - what of it? 


  1. Angela Thirkell's literary counterpart (the character in her novels most patterned upon herself) liked to say that she wrote "good bad books", and would then go on to explain: "Yes. Not very good books, you know, but good of a second-rate kind." These appealed to certain readers and allowed both Mrs. Morland and eventually Angela Thirkell to make the money needed to support themselves. And to reflect a certain sort of social history.

  2. Thirkell is an excellent example - I really enjoy her books, both because they're entertaining and for the details of everyday life in conservative, upper middle class/county Middle England - but the description she gives there is fairly accurate. But we all love books like this - ones that make us laugh, and don't demand much - and I get fed up with the snobbery around genre fiction.