Every couple of months at least, some media-appointed literary expert is bemoaning the market that exists for really bad writing. I’m not talking about the merely workmanlike stodge of Trease or Jenkins, Geoffries both, but the literary junk food that gets the Guardianistas sniffing about the things some people will read, while looking around for a copy so they won’t be left out of the loop on the latest love-to-hate trend. Seriously, just trying to read all of the acknowledged classics is a lifetime’s work: if you’re already wasting hours a day skimming through articles about Scandiwegian interior design tips and which charities are the most carbon-friendly, you really don’t have the time to spare for retouched internet fan-fiction.

Still, I digress. I was thinking about the phenomenon of vastly grossing drivel a while ago and was sure that I could remember having read something very apposite about it in an article by Hilaire Belloc, he of the lyric elegy to mowing one’s lawn with a scythe. Belloc knew a thing or two about publishing, as he’d been a jobbing writer and journalist for many years before he made his comments, but they proved very hard to find because he made them as an aside in a piece about sailing. I found this out after having checked the entire volume and finally in desperation decided that reading about yachting around South Devon in 1914 might take my mind off things.

This brings me to the real crux of this post. What I remembered as an article is really an extract from a much longer work, The Cruise of the Nona. It’s a portmanteau of commentary, reminiscences and various tangential musings, structured and bound together by the itinerary of a sailing trip around Britain and Ireland, but just a few minutes skimming through it yielded up so much gorgeous prose that it seems unfair to choose only two examples. They’re not the best, but one is the comment I had been trying to find and the other was read on the hundredth anniversary of the events it describes, so if they have pushed ahead of more deserving fellows there is at least reason behind it.

Belloc said of writing and its market:

A man is no more meant to live by writing than he is meant to live by conversation, or by dressing, or by walking about and seeing the world. For there is no relation between the function of letters and the economic effect of letters; there is no relation between the goodness and the badness of the work, or the usefulness of the work, or the magnitude of the work, and the sums paid for the work. It would not be natural that there should be such a relation, and, in fact, there is none.

This truth is missed by people who say that good writing has no market. That is not the point. Good writing sometimes has a market, and very bad writing sometimes has a market. Useful writing sometimes has a market, and writing of no use whatsoever, even as recreation, sometimes has a market. Writing important truths sometimes has a market. Writing the most ridiculous errors and false judgements sometimes has a market. the point is that the market has nothing to do with the qualities attached to writing. It never had and it never will. There is no injustice about it, any more than there is an injustice in the survival of beauty or ugliness in human beings, or the early death of the beautiful or the ugly.

Only a couple of pages earlier, Belloc was reminiscing about an experience while sailing off Plymouth in 1914 that he describes as marking “…in a sort of visionary way, the unleashing of the Great War”.

In this loneliness and content, as I sailed northward, I chanced to look, after an hour’s steering or so, eastward again towards the open sea – and then it was that there passed me the vision I shall remember for ever, or for so long as the longest life may last.

Like ghosts, like things themselves made of mist, there passed between me and the newly risen sun, a procession of great forms, all in line, hastening eastward. It was the Fleet recalled.
The slight haze along the that distant water had thickened, perhaps, imperceptibly; or perhaps the great speed of the men-of-war buried them too quickly in the distance. But, from whatever cause, this marvel was of short duration. It was seen for a moment, and in a moment it was gone.

Then I knew that war would come, and my mind was changed. The bright air was the same around me and the heartening morning wind; the happy course of the Nona, making for a known port with all in her favour and something of youth in her and all round. What that war would bring, its magnitude, its character, was veiled from us all; but the advent of it, the mass of it coming, put a new face on everything I saw and felt and heard; on the steady breeze, on the little lapping of the salt sea-water, on the strong headlands of England.

The first of these passages could have been written at any time. Publish it today under another name and it would pass for topical commentary. The thing about my little Everyman Belloc collection, though, is that such commentary can appear so close to a passage that in the events it recalls, its style, imagery and vocabulary, is so very much of its time. A voice from out of the great shipwreck of the Victorian world offers a quiet glimpse of the massing forces that would break it, much as Hardy does in Channel Firing.

Another point of interest that occurred to me while I was skimming through the author’s biography at the beginning of my book is that Belloc was an Oxford-educated Catholic writer with foreign antecedents and connections to Edgbaston. One figure from the next generation of writers, a descendent of German piano makers, would also come from Birmingham up to Oxford and make a name for himself, but that, of course, is a different story. Perhaps at some time I should analyse what it is that I find appealing in the works of twentieth-century Roman Catholics. Certainly I think that the literature departments backed the wrong horse creatively, if only in thinking of literature as some sort of competition, but these are thoughts for another day.