The world of culture, broadly considered, suffered a trio of notable losses recently. At the high end of the spectrum, widely and uncontroversially mourned, were the British Shakespearean actor Sir John Gielgud (with his voice “like a silken trumpet”) and the French flutist (“the man with the golden flute”) Jean-Pierre Rampal.
At the low end was the matriarch of English-language romantic fiction, Dame Barbara Cartland, she of the white Rolls-Royces, fox furs, pearls and worldwide book sales of 650 million-plus. The commentaries on her passing were more two-edged. Cartland may have been step-great-grandmother to the future king of England; she may have been in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s best-selling living author; but she never could get respect while she was alive. To the gatekeepers of culture, she was so far below critical consideration as to not even register on the scale. In the mansion of literature, there was literally no passage connecting the basement where she toiled with the airy stage where Gielgud regularly brought Shakespeare and lesser gods to life.
In death, however, Cartland has proved harder to ignore. It has been interesting in the past two weeks watching the obituary writers grapple with the fact that, of the three newly departed artists, only hers was truly a household name. A note of grudging admiration has crept in. The Economist even predicted last week that “Cartlandish” may yet find a place in the dictionary — an equivocal honor, admittedly, since the word is basically a synonym for romantic trash, but one accorded few other contemporary authors. Or old ones, for that matter: We have Platonic, Dickensian, Joycean, Proustian perhaps, but it is an awfully short list. It seems there is simply no getting around that Cartlandish figure of close to three-quarters of a billion books sold.
Gielgud and Rampal, superb performers both, were mourned last week by the elites of their professions. Everyone agreed that they had dwelt on the peaks of human achievement. But the converse of this is that the masses on the plains below have been as oblivious to them in death as in their long, productive lives. Despite his seven decades as a virtuoso Shakespearean stage actor, Gielgud is probably best remembered outside Britain for his Oscar-winning role in the 1982 Dudley Moore comedy “Arthur” — a five-finger exercise for an actor of his distinction. Rampal, unlike his fellow classical flutist James Galway, never descended to the popular level at all. Cartland, in contrast to both, never climbed out of it.
What are we to make of this? The reflexive response is to define and celebrate humanity by the highest standards. We like to measure ourselves against what the university-educated high priests of culture tell us is the best that we, collectively, can do. Thus we put recordings of Shakespeare and Mozart into our time or space capsules, even though statistics confirm that the vast majority of us have never seen “King Lear” or heard a note of a Mozart flute concerto. This, we say to our future descendants, to curious extraterritorials, or perhaps just to ourselves (a little anxiously), is who we really are. Barbara Cartland, dictating another stardust romance every couple of weeks from her red velvet sofa, is not us.
Except that, going by those numbers, she is us. There are enough Cartland novels out there for nearly one in six of the world’s inhabitants to own one. This prompts the thought that literacy, as a species-defining ability, may be a greatly overrated thing. In the first place, as Hans Magnus Enzensberger pointed out in a 1985 essay titled “In Praise of Illiteracy” (reprinted in this month’s Harper’s magazine), one-third of the planet’s inhabitants at that time could not read or write at all. If the dead were counted, as they should be, he said, it becomes clear that “literacy is the exception rather than the rule. It could occur only to us, that is, to a tiny minority of people who read and write, to think of those who don’t as a tiny minority.” In the second place, those sales figures tell us, as global literacy programs kick in and the tiny minority grows, what writer have more of the new readers turned to than any other? That’s right: Barbara Cartland. And after her, to her numerous fellow laborers in the fields of fantasy and escape.
There is nothing wrong with that, and it is perhaps worth remembering as we try to figure out who should be honored in the realm of culture, and why. It was recalled last week that Gielgud sometimes liked to relax by reading “trashy novels.” It would be fitting to think that one of them might have been by Cartland. What a symbolic meeting that would have represented of the two poles of humanity, “that can sing” (as good old Shakespeare put it) “both high and low.”
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