Quality is one of those words that can never be defined in terms that completely satisfy everyone. During my years in the armed forces it simply described functional and hardwearing equipment; accurate side-arms that didn’t jam, comfortable boots that lasted, and so on. Then, during my years in commerce, the advertising agencies adopted it and quickly expanded its definition.
At the beginning of the nineteen-eighties it was the stock word for just about every marketing slogan the computer industry ever coined. By the end of that decade it had become a ‘buzz word’ for everything from good working practice to meaningful and fulfilling leisure time.
I love the feel and resonance of the word. To me it conjures images of soft-leather chairs, and polished-mahogany tables, sumptuous living, expensive cigars, and twenty-year-old scotch. It can be as pretentious as ‘bling’ and emotive as an exclamation, or as informative as the bluntest adjective.
Most will concede it is entirely subjective, and yet, when it comes to literature, its use seems to stir up all manner of snobbery and polarised opinion.
There are still literary agencies, on both sides of the Atlantic, who insist they will only accept submissions of ‘quality literature’, although, and at the same time, failing to properly explain their precise definition of the term.
Some will insist that popular literature cannot be quality literature, and yet I have the complete works of William Shakespeare sitting on my bookshelves, as do millions like me from across the globe. Perhaps, as with certain types of rain in a drought, Shakespeare’s popularity is the wrong kind of popularity.
Maybe it is all to do with fashion. After all, D.H. Lawrence was considered a purveyor of ‘filth and pornography’ not so very long ago, whereas today the purists will excuse Lawrence’s previous denigration, at the hands of the self-appointed guardians of quality literature, by claiming that. . . ‘The man was obviously born before the world was ready to embrace his genius’.
Maybe the cynical among us are right. Maybe quality literature is a term we use to describe the books we all like to say we’ve read, rather than the books we actually like to read. Perhaps there has to be an element of ‘donning the hair shirt’ about settling into quality literature.
Me. . . ? I change my definition every couple of years.
For example. . . At the age of five, if anyone had claimed that Enid Blyton’s Noddy series was anything but quality literature, I would have hit them with my teddy bear. By the time I had reached the grand old age of ten, Noddy had been supplanted by The Famous Five and dear old Shadow the Sheepdog. When I was thirteen, Charles Dickens had assumed the mantle, but then, at the age of seventeen, Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge was ‘my speed’. At nineteen, a politically radical postman from Derbyshire, named J.T. Edson, and the exploits of cowboy hero and fastest gun ‘Dusty Fog’ had become my literature of choice. Dear old J.T. was in turn supplanted by Louis L’Amour, and he by D.H. Lawrence and a little-known but much-read author named Burton Wohl, whose best-selling novel, A Cold Wind in August, was roundly castigated as ‘filthy dross’.
Now who does that remind you of, today?
Some may claim the authors mentioned are a hotchpotch, writing everything from the so-called classics and quality literature to pornography and pulp fiction, but each has, at different times in my life, drawn me, and enthralled me, and enlightened me, and transported me, and devoured me.
By my definition, any book that has the power to do such a thing constitutes quality literature.
So there you have it. Quality literature. Something to do with age, something to do with time, something to do with fashion, something to do with influence, something to do with environment, something to do with education, something to do with creativity, something to do with prose style, something to do with culture, something to do with the literary establishment, something to do with peer pressure, something to do with interpretation, something to do with emotivity.
But, and most importantly. . . Everything to do with you, the individual.
Have a good one.