Karel Čapek: Towards A Popular Literature

I don’t often read – or even buy (let alone for a fairly substantial amount) – collections of literary essays, but I made an exception recently for Karel Čapek’s Believe in People (publ. Faber & Faber). Čapek is one of those writers who really ought to be more available and widely read in English – instead of mostly published by very obscure American imprints.

The second essay in Believe in People is entitled Instead of Criticism and was published in a Czech newspaper on 24th December 1920. This essay states a lot of my feelings around the problems with c20th literature. These aren’t so much problems of the 1920s (or so I feel, in my retrospective vision narrowed by a century of literary discrimination), but problems which have overwhelmed literature since then – particularly what we might call literary fiction, which I mean to include both the dull conversative novels that are produced these days and the dull avant-garde novels too.

Here is an excerpt, his basic argument:

Instead of criticism … today I am going to give away my own tastes … First I confess … a rather low demand: I’d like literature to be entertaining, to be, in fact, really entertaining. We all sin against this requirement, more or less … we speak of the democratisation of literature, about the need to popularise the book. But try to find where the people are. They sit in picture palaces because something’s going on there and because it thrills them. It’s very easy to break out into harangues against this destruction of taste. But consider whether the people sitting in picture palaces aren’t essentially the same as those who twenty-five centuries ago sat by the fire around the Homeric bard and listened to heroic songs [etc.] … For film, despite all its flaws, has one primitive advantage: that it is epic, that there is always something going on, that life here reveals itself in its raciest and clearest form – in action. Popular literature will never be anything but epic … Let me just say a word here on the eternal youth of the people. The people remains a boy who lets himself be enchanted by heroism, by great and unshaken characters, by simple passions, by a strong and perhaps even fantastic plot. Their enjoyment of literature is a fierce participation, a co-activity with everything that is going on. They don’t want to analyse anything but to live with something, to live through something extraordinary … [etc.]

It’s always struck me as a peculiar thing that in a great moment of the democratisation of all things, in the moment of mass culture, literature chose instead to become esoteric and obscure, or to choose as its subject matter precisely that which was unlikely to appeal to the mass of mankind. Literature should, for some reason, it was felt, reflect the lives of ordinary people: though why it should do so now, rather than before – as if there were no ordinary people in times past – remains unexplained. The mass of mankind certainly don’t seem to want it to: they are not interested in the ordinary, they are only interested in the extraordinary – as has been, up until the c20th (and no doubt some of c19th) the history of art.

So yes, more stories please about hyperintelligent newts and robots waging war against mankind. (This last is a terribly false and stereotypical vision of the work of Čapek, which in fact takes many interesting forms, and I am sorry for it).


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