Writing Authors out of History; Chief Feature Writer Jason Beattie Asks Whether Roald Dahl Deserves to Be Hailed the Best Author Ever

By Beattie, Jason | The Birmingham Post (England), March 11, 2000 | Go to article overview

Writing Authors out of History; Chief Feature Writer Jason Beattie Asks Whether Roald Dahl Deserves to Be Hailed the Best Author Ever


Beattie, Jason, The Birmingham Post (England)


The great British reading public in its collective wisdom considers Catherine Cookson and Maeve Binchy superior in talent and insight to George Eliot, D H Lawrence and Elizabeth Gaskell.

The poll of British readers' top 50 writers makes depressing reading. Admittedly, it does not evoke the same despondency which can be had from attempting to finish a paragraph in one of Danielle Steele's (tenth on the list, should you ask) books but the findings hardly fill you with confidence about the taste of the book-buying public.

For a start, we appear to be a nation of readers unable to dispense with the literary diapers.

Six of the top 20 writers are children's authors, with the number one spot going to the inimitable Roald Dahl.

While there is no doubt Mr Dahl, Enid Blyton (number 17), J K Rowling (number two) and Dick King-Smith (18th) are all talented and entertaining writers, to suggest they are the greatest literary talents in the ephemeral world of publishing would be a travesty of judgment.

You might as well suggest Disney's The Jungle Book or The Railway Children are in the same league as David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia or Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

The distinction applies to both cinema and literature: a grown-up work, such as Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment or Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver should always be superior to a well-meaning, well-written work for children such as C S Lewis' (24th) Narnia stories.

The former works are the products of adult thought, have a breadth of vision, a depth of character and an understanding of some of the wider themes in our society.

Crucially, they require the viewer or reader to think and react in a way which it is impossible for children to do.

For all their charms, Bambi and Harry Potter could not claim to be on the same level.

You either accept this point of view or join an anti-Darwinist sect which believes homo sapiens' ability to progress as a species is a deeply flawed theory.

What is surprising about the World Book Day poll is that readers, compared to cinema goers or music listeners, are the least able to distinguish between quality and pulp.

It is not so much that the list is a poor cross-section of writers - there are almost an equal number of romance, crime, thriller and children's authors - but the selected authors are uniform in their mediocrity.

Britain, you could conclude, is defiantly middle-brow.

Hence the top three adult authors are Terry Pratchett (3rd), Catherine Cookson (4th) and Maeve Binchy (5th).

Romantic writers (some 11 in all) form the largest grouping with Danielle Steele, Rosamunde Pilcher (21st), Joanna Trollope (25th) and Georgette Heyer (28th) in the top 30.

Crime writers also do well with Dick Francis (or should that be Mr and Mrs Francis?) at number eight, Agatha Christie (23rd), Ruth Rendell (29th), Ellis Peters (36th) and Ian Rankin (37th).

Here again, this shows up the absurdity of the exercise. Rendell, Peters and Rankin could all be consider class acts in their particular field yet they come below Dick Francis who, although entertaining, is not in the same literary league.

But this is not the true scandal of the list. That dishonour is reserved for the number of decent writers who have been omitted. …

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