Throughout the story, the narrator presents popular novels—and particularly novels written and enjoyed by women—as frivolous and unsophisticated. The reading public is portrayed as fickle, and popular taste as sentimental and clichéd. However, Wodehouse also gently mocks authors who have grand artistic aspirations. Finally, he bemoans the fact that poor popular taste and a profit-driven publishing industry make it difficult for high art to succeed.
The narrator clearly believes that popular novels are formulaic and that the public’s taste is unreliable at best. At the beginning of the story, the “sensitive barmaid” Miss Postlethwaite is deeply moved as she reads Rue for Remembrance, the novel that Egbert wrote and has encouraged Evangeline to pass off as her own. The scene that has brought her to tears is full of the clichés of popular romance novels, as the protagonist’s love interest has just left her “standing tight-lipped and dry-eyed in the moonlight outside the old Manor.” Miss Postlethwaite acts as a stand-in for the audience here; her sentimental tastes reflect those of the general public.
Wodehouse also emphasizes the fickleness of popular taste (“these swift, unheralded changes of the public mind”). Readers seemingly are guided by their whims and emotions rather than any sophisticated sense of aesthetic value. Indeed, the narrative makes it clear that the success of popular novels has nothing to do with artistic merit—despite its best-seller status, Evangeline’s novel is poorly written and autobiographical, suggesting a lack both literary talent and creativity. (In Egbert’s opinion, it’s a “horrid, indecent production.”)
At the same time, Wodehouse makes fun of writers who make grand claims about the value of their work. The female novelists Egbert interviews all want to talk about “Art and their Ideals.” These novelists want to seem highbrow and sophisticated, but, at least to Egbert, their ideals are actually just as clichéd and predictable as their novels. Wodehouse also mocks “sensitive artists,” stating that while they might like to be seen as inspired souls and certainly like making money, they don’t actually like writing very much. The narrator observes, “It is not the being paid money in advance that jars the sensitive artist: it is the having to work.”
Highbrow or lowbrow, the story suggests, all writers are part of a publishing industry driven by economic gain, which makes it nearly impossible for high-quality art to succeed. For example, what appears at first glance to be serious social commentary about popular novels turns out to be a marketing ploy. Leading up to the publication of a romance novel titled Offal, publishers have arranged to have a newspaper discussion titled “The Growing Menace of the Sex Motive in Fiction: Is There to be no Limit.” Ostensibly, this is a criticism of Offal and novels like it, but in fact it is intended to boost sales.
Wodehouse also lumps popular novels together with more experimental or “literary” works. Egbert’s editor, for instance, sends him to “the No Man’s Land of Bloomsbury” to gather information for a column. Bloomsbury was known at the time as the home of a group of artists that included Virginia Woolf, whose novels were considered avant-garde. It also was the location of the publishing company Faber & Faber, which was well known for printing Modernist poetry and criticism. Wodehouse, then, is placing novelists from Bloomsbury on the same footing as Evangeline, as columns about both are published in the same magazine. This is a reminder that even though “serious” writers may look down on popular novelists, highbrow and lowbrow literature are part of the same industry—one driven by commercial concerns.
By catering to popular tastes in order to increase profits, the publishing industry dissuades young writers from creating high art and forces them to seek more mundane employment. Continually shifting popular tastes cause “powerful young novelists to seek employment as junior clerks in wholesale grocery firms.” Although Egbert derides poorly written popular novels, he is part of an industry that appears actively to inhibit the creation and dissemination of higher quality art.
While Wodehouse mocks the lowbrow preferences of the general reading public, he also satirizes the literary pretensions of so-called serious authors. Wodehouse himself, as a comedic writer, wasn’t always taken seriously by the literary elite, so it’s not surprising that he takes a jab at them here. Wodehouse further suggests that both lowbrow and highbrow works are part of a publishing industry that privileges commercial success over literary quality. As a result, the literary environment as a whole discourages the creation of high art.
Highbrow Versus Lowbrow Art ThemeTracker
Highbrow Versus Lowbrow Art Quotes in Best Seller
For six months, week in and week out, Egbert Mulliner had been listening to female novelists talking about Art and their Ideals. He had seen them in cosy corners in their boudoirs, had watched them being kind to dogs and happiest when among their flowers. And one morning the proprietor of The Booklover, finding the young man sitting at his desk with little flecks of foam about his mouth and muttering over and over again in a dull, toneless voice the words, “Aurelia McGoggin, she draws her inspiration from the scent of white lilies!” had taken him straight off to a specialist.
It is these swift, unheralded changes of the public mind which make publishers stick straws in their hair and powerful young novelists rush round to the wholesale grocery firms to ask if the berth of junior clerk is still open.
When a column on “Myrtle Bootle Among Her Books” was required, it was Egbert whom he sent to the No Man’s Land of Bloomsbury. When young Eustace Johnson, a novice who ought never to have been entrusted with such a dangerous commission, was found walking round in circles and bumping his head against the railings of Regent’s Park after twenty minutes with Laura La Motte Grindlay, the great sex novelist, it was Egbert who was flung into the breach.