Friday, May 21, 2004

Vulgarity rules

This blog has never yet been short of material. In fact, the reverse is true. I often come across little bits on the web, or in newspapers, which would make an interesting post; I make a note of them, cut them out and stick them in the file, and then three weeks later I realise that time has rather passed them by. So here is one such cutting which I will mention before it becomes hopelessly out of date. And it is, fortunately, a point which is rather timeless.

On 17 April the Financial Times published an article about the artist Jack Vettriano. The name may or may not mean anything, but you can hardly fail to have seen his work. Whenever you buy a birthday card, or wander into any kind of shop which sells prints to hang on your living-room wall, you will see Vettriano's paintings. And if you want to see a few examples online, go here.

Anyway, the FT had this to say: 'Vettriano joins a select group of artists, such as Beryl Cook, David Shepherd, John Ward, and Ken Howard, whose work is snapped up by collectors but is... ignored by the critics.'

In other words, the public like it, but the taste police of the art world absolutely hate it. It's popular, see, so how can it possibly be any good?

I, of course, being a man renowned for my coarse, vulgar taste in almost everything, a person of relentless philistinism and -- heh heh -- actually rather proud of it, I quite like Vettriano myself.

What is true of the art world is also true of books. Take Josephine Cox, for instance. Not one of my own favourite writers, but a pro. For a good many years now she has been producing a couple of books a year, and they always feature in the Guardian's annual list of the 100 fastseller paperbacks of the year. In 2003, for example, she had Beachcomber (316,827 copies sold) and Bad Boy Jack (281,951). (Though she sells well in the UK, she does not, I believe, sell many copies in the USA.)

These books are perhaps best described by the slightly pejorative trade description of 'clogs and shawl sagas'. That is to say, they are often about young women in difficult circumstances, living in the industrial world of England in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. They are of interest, I suspect, mainly to older women readers, from similar backgrounds, who remember all too well how hard life could be in such times.

And what do the serious critics, those infallible judges of a 'good book', say about our Josie? Well, for the most part, as with Vettriano, they ignore her. But in 1995 the Times did condescend to review her book Living a Lie. 'Truth to tell,' said the reviewer, 'it stinks.... The writing is hammy, the characters mere ciphers, and the writing laboured and superficial.... Cox's prose is simpering, wishy-washy and full of monstrous cliches....' (Oh my God, pardon me while I reach for the smelling salts.)

The book stinks, but the author regularly sells 500,000 copies a year? Something a little out of kilter here, wouldn't you think?

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