Scandalous Truths: Essays by and about Susan Howatch

Scandalous Truths: Essays by and about Susan Howatch

Scandalous Truths: Essays by and about Susan Howatch

Scandalous Truths: Essays by and about Susan Howatch

Synopsis

Susan Howatch's global bestsellers have appeared regularly since the 1970s, but a radical shift in her subject matter in the 1980s and especially the 1990s made reviewers and then academics adjust their glasses and stare hard at her pages. Howatch began to take her loyal following of gothic and family-saga readers into unexpected psychological and theological depths, while taking to an extreme, with a serious-novel format, the experiments begun in her family sagas. She also introduced to her readers a character only half-alive in Trollope, the Anglican Church. The twentieth-century church born in Howatch's later fiction is a huge, sometimes monstrous, sometimes life-giving creature whose various dimensions make it entirely engaging and weirdly central to the center-less postmodern world. "Scandalous Truths" provides a way into Howatch's new world by presenting for the first time many of her own considerations of her work, and by allowing a group of scholars to engage in a wide-ranging discussion of Howatch's art.

Excerpt

With the recent publication of the final book of the St Benet's trilogy Susan Howatch’s career spans more than forty years, but Howatch has been widely accepted as a subject for academic consideration only in the last decade. In the 1960s she wrote six short novels in the gothic romance genre. During the seventies and most of the eighties, Howatch moved on to original explorations in the genre of the family saga. These five novels were wildly popular; Penmarric, for instance, was serialized for BBC radio and television. In the late eighties and through the mid-nineties she made a quantum leap in her conception of what historical fiction could be. The six novels of the Starbridge series follow the life of an entirely new and unexpectedly fascinating character, the English church. This character is seen in its various manifestations during the final twothirds of the twentieth century in figures who represent the major wings of and movements in the Anglican church. The Starbridge novels kept the wide audience generated by the family sagas and added a new cadre of readers. Beginning with the family sagas and continuing to the present, Howatch has achieved the status of global best seller. And that’s the problem.

The relationship of academe to popular works of art has always been a vexed one, largely because we critics see ourselves as the arbiters of culture. We believe that our judgments are more reasonable, thoughtful, and important than the judgments of ordinary consumers of art. The definition of popular literature in one of the most commonly used literary handbooks reveals the prejudices of academe. Popular literature is “writing in one of the commercially viable modes, especially prose fiction. This literature is valued on a strictly quantitative basis—number of copies sold.” So we often react negatively to those works that establish themselves in popular culture without being recommended to the public by us. In general, the academy is not averse to examining literary works that are popu-

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