Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday the 13th

In my ongoing quest for blogging obscurity, I have decided to blog my way through Sir Walter Scott's novel Rob Roy. This is probably insane if the goal is to draw readers*. Jane Austen is much blogged but nobody much reads or cares about poor old Sir Walter anymore.

It's an odd reversal that it should be that way. The first run of Pride and Prejudice was probably about 1500 copies and took nine months to sell out. The first run of Rob Roy was 10,000 copies and took less than two weeks to sell out.

A popular explanation of this in academic circles is that Jane Austen and Walter Scott represent two different approaches to writing novels. Scott's novels were plot driven and Austen's more psychological and Austen won out leaving Scott a dead end in the development of the novel. That is over-simplified but if you take a British  or English novel course in university, you'll quite likely be told something like that. (I don't think the distinction holds by the way. And I pretty sure Jane Austen would be horrified at the suggestion that she wrote "psychological" novels or that her books bore even the vaguest similarity to the appalling crap turned out by writers such as Carol Shields.)

I have two problems with that.

The first is that it just isn't true. According to some estimates, Pride and Prejudice sold 110,000 copies last year and that may seem significant until you put it up against Sophie Kinsella, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steele and company—all of whom write in a  style much closer to Sir Walter than to Jane Austen—and whose sales dwarf not only Jane Austen but all contemporary writers who do write "psychological" novels.

In fact, psychological novels only get published today because they are heavily subsidized by government grants and university presses and only get read because the intellectual community gives them so much free promotion. The style would vanish in weeks if it had to rely on market appeal alone.

The second reason I object is because Sir Walter was a great writer. He has his flaws, and I'll get to them towards the end of Rob Roy, endings generally being one of his weaknesses.

Why then is he not read now? Two reasons. The first is that you have to know and care about the historical events he writes about to understand what is going on. Two hundred years from now it will be very hard to read and understand novels that rely heavily on readers grasping the significance  events such as 9/11 have right now. Likewise, it is hard to grasp the significance of the 15 and 45 rebellions in the lives of Sir Walter's characters.

But if we make the effort there is real treasure here. And this guy was incredibly influential. Not only did he sell more books than anyone else in the 19th century, the plays and operas and even songs (the song we think of as Schubert's Ave Maria was a setting of part of Sir Walter's Lady of the Lake). Poets and novelists all over the world were influenced by Sir Walter Scott.

And Jane Austen herself liked him.

Anyway, I start Tuesday and I'm going to cover two or three chapters a week. If I can finish by December 20, I will have blogged the book in about the time it took Sir Walter to write it.

* My goal is not to draw readers. I am grateful for everyone here and I was humbled that as many as 38 people a day came by to read the Mad Men season three blogging but I don't try to attract people and I'll keep blogging even if no one reads. I used to put this stuff in journals relatively confident that no one read it.

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