The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 13, 2002

Literary taste as vision of life
Manisha Gangahar

Literary Taste
by Arnold Bennett. Rupa, New Delhi, Pages 172. Rs 95.

 Literary Taste ARNOLD Bennett, often referred to as a "a man of Potteries", was a man whose area of expertise was amazingly wide. He was an English novelist, critic, playwright, essayist, and journalist and also an outstanding book reviewer. His prolific work brought him all the accomplishment and commendation he ever desired. Quite intriguingly, among his possessions was a splendidly lavish yacht, the Valsa. To add to this, the Savoy Hotel serves a special dish known as the "omelette Arnold Bennett".

Often regarded as a man of contradictions, Bennett was cosmopolitan with regard to his ideas and his outlook. Yet he did not completely break free from his local roots. His novels, especially the sequence known as Five Towns’ novels, are realistic portraits of the ordinary life that Bennett was so familiar with in his youth. It was with The Old Wives’ Tale, a double biography of middle class sisters, that Bennett became an established novelist. However, he could not escape the assault by Virginia Woolf that his fiction was deficient in characterisation. Apart from novels, his work comprises letters, autobiographical writings and non-fictional books and essays. Indeed, in his varied works his intention had always been to investigate the reality of life, and streaks of his own experience and imagination can be traced in them.

Literary Taste begins with a critique of man’s perception of literature and his preconceived notions about literary taste being an accomplishment. Bennett says that "literary taste thus serves two purposes: as a certificate of correct culture and as a private pastime". An individual lacking in "literary knowledge is not welcomed in classy gatherings". Literature becomes a kind of trump card that one can carry in his pocket and presents as and when the need arises. It becomes a sort of ‘entrance test’ that must be qualified in order to cross over from being merely an educated person to being an ‘enlightened’ being. It is this attitude of the general public that Bennett ridicules. In his book he attempts to correct the misconceptions that are liberally entertained by majority of the people.


Quite convincingly he manages to explain what literature means when he writes, "Literature instead of being an accessory, is the fundamental sine qua non of complete living". It cannot be denied that the study of literature is an educational and an entertaining experience but Bennett is trying to assert that it also helps a person come "alive" and "is first and last a means of life and... forming one’s literary taste is... learning how best to use this means of life". It is a means to know the world in its assorted shades and to have a kaleidoscopic vision of life.

It is commonly accepted that literary taste can be cultivated through a committed reading of the "classics". The book delves into the portfolio of classic literature and examines why some literary works are so called. Bennett says that it is not the masses but the "passionate few" to whom the writers of classics owe their perpetual eminence. Thus, the genius of Shakespeare has no meaning for a street dweller who is, in fact, manoeuvred to believing and accepting the greatness of the writer. Interestingly, it is the people in power who decide what is great and what is a classic. Their number may not be large but the immense power of knowledge helps them in dominating the rest. Nonetheless, a classic or any book for that matter is not only "the expression of man" as an individual but is an expression of his mindset and the stance that he takes. Bennett does emphasise the significance of a writer’s personal experiences in understanding his work and suggests the "co-existence" of style and matter, but says it is equally important to place the writer and his work in the age he represents.

The book seems to be a kind of manual with step-by-step instructions for undertaking the project of procuring literary taste. Beginning with the importance and assessment of classics, Bennett goes on to propose a "reading system". Also, according to him the whole venture will remain incomplete if one does not have a taste of the usually dreaded "verse" for which he offers some easy measures. The concluding chapters provide a comprehensive bibliography, intelligently divided into four periods on the basis of their costs and their literary worth for the convenience of literature enthusiasts.