Arnold Bennett’s plain words

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. The answer was a resounding yes. However, I became tired of reading old books and felt the need to bring myself up-to-date. I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, The Ruin by Edward Sackville-West. 

Edward Sackville-West Source: The National Portrait Gallery.

Arnold Bennett’s review of The Ruin by Edward Sackville-West appeared in the 25th of November edition of the Evening Standard (you can read a detailed review at the excellent Reading 1900-1950 site).  Under the heading Plain Words to Our Younger Novelists, he wrote:

He can sometimes produce emotional effects of beauty (also what is loosely termed ugliness) which she [the novelist Mary Borden, reviewed by Bennett in the same column] could not even begin to produce. I should say that he may one day count – though The Ruin is perhaps excessively jejune, and has many pages about nothing.

Book cover forThe Ruin. Source:

Book cover forThe Ruin. Source:

Bennett then commented:

I am very interested in young writers [Sackville-West was 25 and Bennett was 59] – and rather gloomy about them. Nor am I alone in my gloominess. I find, when conversation on the subject has grown frank and intimate, that the young themselves are gloomy about their writers. I know that the war killed about 50 per cent. of potential talents. But the other 50 per cent. promise too little, and have performed almost nothing so far.

This was still a post-war society (the war had ended 8 years before)  for whom the one million dead were not great-grandfathers but rather fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, husbands and wives. When it came to literature, for every Siegfried Sassoon returned to his family how many Isaac Rosenbergs  had been left on the battlefield? Bennett, who had worked for Lord Beaverbrook in the War Propaganda Bureau,  was clearly concerned that the next literary renewal, which thirty years before had been embodied in the works of H.G.Wells or more recently in those of E.M.Forster, simply would not happen.

But to-day?…The elders and their immediate successors (such as E.M.Forster and D.H.Lawrence) can and do, when up to their form, knock the stuffing out of the boys and girls.

Plain words indeed for the younger novelists. As for me, I rather enjoyed the high drama of rural life where just about everyone would have benefited from getting out a little bit more.

Turning to his journals, we can see that Bennett was involved with the rehearsals for production of his novel Riceyman Steps (now there’s a novel that could “knock the stuffing out of the boys and girls”). On the 20th of November he wrote of his visit to the Ambassadors Theatre:

We rehearsed until 3.5 p.m. and then ate a good snack of chicken, tongue, and salad and admirable claret, in [leading actor] Leon M. Lion’s dressing room.

On the 25th of November Dorothy Bennett, his partner, returned from the first performance and he wrote:

She arrived home shortly before 6, with a very gloomy account of it…the audience was chilled and not at all responsive; in short, that the thing was a failure.

The play ran for six matinee performances before closing.




Calculations in search of an explanation.

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, just how much literary taste do I have? 

Time for a time out and ask the question, how much literary taste have I accumulated so far from reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett?  Below in the first chart is the raw data:

The graph!

This can be broadly understood as:

When I'm good I'm very, very good.

Turn it into a pie chart and it looks like this (ignoring any points that have fallen on the dotted line, giving them a value of zero):

Fancy some pie?

Thus giving me a literary taste rating of 59%. However, and I’m sure you saw that coming, what does Not Literary Taste mean? In this calculation it all seems very passive whereas you would think it should be taking a much more active role in determining my literary taste. It is not an absence of literary taste, rather it is a collection of data in its own right which demands to be considered.

So, if 100 equals an average literary taste then the books I read will provide variations, plus and minus, from that mean. This can be expressed as 100 + Literary Taste – Not Literary Taste, in this case (100+59)-41, giving me a result of 118. Thus, according to this calculation, my literary taste is 18 points above the mean. Which, to me at least, sounds better than a literary taste reading of 59%.

All of the above assumes every coordinate is of equal value, i.e. 1. But, and I’m sure you saw that coming too, the position of the coordinate in relation to the dotted line is an indication of the strength, or otherwise, of the literary taste given to me through the reading of a book. Should that not be reflected in any calculation? For example, good coordinates nearer the dotted line should have lesser value than those further away, i.e. the closer to Not Literary Taste the less impact the book has had on me, and the reverse for bad coordinates, as in:

Now for the big sums.

Weighted like this, the coordinates now give a pie chart which looks like this:

Damn, that's good!Using the same weighted data, I come out with a literary taste 84 points above the mean. All of which seems to point out previously unknown depths to my literary taste, and which would doubtless come as a surprise to anyone who knows me. I know what you are going to say. Literary taste is composed of a huge range of ideas, beliefs, prejudices, all of which in turn draw on historical contexts, class backgrounds, that it is pointless to quantify such a nebulous and subjective concept. To that objection I say that we live in a age of wonder and change, where technology strides across the world like a behemoth. It is only a matter of time before someone develops an app for the iPhone.

Meanwhile, I will take refuge in the bucolic idyll of Mary Russell Mitford’s Village Walks and plant a coordinate in the graph once I have read it.

Putting the text into Textals.

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, what the Textal app can do for you. Oh, and for you too.

After Google Ngrams and Google Trends  comes the wonderful iPhone App Textal. As the developer’s introduction puts it:

Textal is a free smartphone app that allows you to analyze websites, tweet streams, and documents, as you explore the relationships between words in the text via an intuitive word cloud interface. You can generate graphs and statics, as well as share the data and visualizations in any way you like.

It’s easy to use and gives you words clouds that look like this:

How to Live on 24 Hours a DayThis was generated using Arnold Bennett’s self-help book How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, first published in 1910, and it is very intuitive, as you can see. You can build a more detailed picture by selecting a word from the cloud, for example, focusing on the word literature we can see that:

Statistics Or what about those collocations:


Word pairings? Why, the work of a moment:


And, of course, my own favourite – the graph:


I wrote a piece about How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. Running that through Textal produced the following cloud:

How to Live on 24 Hours a Day blog post

I’m not sure why the colours but it was after an update and I imagine they show correspondence in the use of words in the text. Now the fun begins. Looking back at the word cloud for Bennett’s book, and passing over the core comprising of words such as one, will and time, it is words such as business and programme that stand out. Not surprising, given that Bennett was writing the book for the growing class of white-collar workers. Looking at the word cloud for my post, it is literary, family, Virginia (Woolf) and servant that stand out. Not surprising, given that I was using Bennett’s book to point out the part played by servants in British society in the opening decades of the twentieth century. And having a go at Virginia Woolf, of course. Do the Textal word clouds point to a wilful misunderstanding on my part of Bennett’s book? Speaking for myself, I would be surprised if it was otherwise.

Should an application such as Textal be used with care, keeping in mind the need at all times for context and the widest perspective possible? Of course it should. But if experience shows us anything, it is that genies do tend to jump out of bottles at the earliest opportunity.

Next time, graphs to show the state of my literary taste.

A Liebster Award!

Erica, at Reading 1900 – 1950, has very kindly nominated Literary Taste for a Liebster Award, a way of bloggers rewarding their fellow bloggers for their work. Being a recipient of a Liebster means including a link to the nominator’s blog, which I very happily do here:

Reading 1900 – 1950

I will also have to nominate another blog (or perhaps blogs) for a Liebster Award (I ask for your patience). Although not a part of the process I would like to say something about Reading 1900-1950 as a way of saying thank you for the kind things Erica wrote about Literary Taste. Living outside of the UK allows me the privilege of looking at positive aspects of life back in the UK and labelling them “British.” That can include a love of history and tradition, saying “excuse me” and “thank you”, forming queues, eccentricity and individuality, the importance of having a hobby, the seaside, knowing how to make tea and why tea is important in moments of crisis. Without falling too heavily for my usual temptation of flippancy Reading 1900-1950 ticks all of these boxes. It is wonderfully British. It is stamped throughout like a piece of Blackpool rock with the words “Labour of Love.” Light is thrown onto the past, books are unearthed and read once more, a community that would never seek to identify itself as one is created and flourishes. With no thought of financial reward  something good is brought into the world and, if only for a while, the mediocre and commonplace are given a run for their money. I think Erica and all the contributors to Reading 1900-1950 should be congratulated with the drinking of tea and the eating of cake for all that they have achieved to give good books (and some less good too) the chance to shine once more!

I need to also answer questions sent to me by Erica. Here goes.

1. Do you ever read contemporary fiction? If so, what contemporary authors do you enjoy?

In any conversation with friends at work about books, they will always say “But you wouldn’t be interested. The author is still alive.” In my defense I would say a couple of things. I have always suffered from whatever phobia covers fear of all bookshops. This is an area of medical research that is ripe for further investigation, As a child I remember walking into John Smith in Glasgow with my 25p and, after exploring all the departments, buying the same thing every time: Charlie Brown and Peanuts. I do read contemporary fiction but apparently only in Spanish. I am currently reading La Berlina de Prim by the Lorca biographer Ian Gibson, It is a historical novel dealing with the search by an Irish journalist for the murderers of the popular and populist General Prim in 1870. So, the writer is alive but all the characters are dead.

2. What would you say is the particular appeal of reading novels from the first half of the twentieth century?

Style. These books were written by people who did not confuse a confident and stylish use of English with a loss of an authentic writer’s voice.

3. What’s the last book you did not finish, and why?

Another Spanish book comes to mind, El Jinete Polaco by Antonio Muñoz Molina. A lot of Spanish fiction suffers, I feel, from the author pushing his way into the action and telling you loudly what is going on and why it is important.

4. What do you think of literary prizes?

A bit like Cowdenbeath. I know it’s there but it doesn’t really impact on my life.

5. Do you have a favourite lost classic or a book you would recommend to everyone?

I’m glad you asked me this one because it lets me write Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. I feel a number of Spanish authors would benefit from reading it.

6. If you could live in a novel, which one would it be, and why?

It would have to be Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Reading it when I was younger made Lenzie seem a small Scottish town on the outskirts of Glasgow. Which it is.

7. Do you have a favourite place for reading?

Lying in bed.

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