T. A. Jackson

Old Friends to Keep


Why the Novel?

Having surveyed—all too briefly—some of the peak points in the history of the classic English novel, it seems advisable to conclude with a general statement of what I have been trying to do, and why.

The governing consideration for me is the fact which can never sufficiently be stressed, that “man does not live by bread alone”.

And I don’t mean only that he likes a spot of cheese with his bread, and a drop of summat to wash it down.

I mean that just as, for a full life, men need food for their minds as well as for their bodies, so too, they need food for their fancy, their sympathy, their power of creative imagination.

It is my conviction, supported by the experience of a life-time, that no class feels so hungry for these things as does the wage-worker class—whose circumstances have tended drastically to deny them all power of satisfying this cultural hunger, except in mean and scandalously adulterated ways.

Yet it stands to reason that the man or woman who has no recreation will soon become incapable of any work beyond the most mechanical routine drudgery.

The fight for leisure, and for the facilities which enrich leisure with recreational possibilities, has therefore been an integral part of the programme of working-class struggle from the very beginning.

And not merely because men are entitled to a “bit of fun” as a relief from work. In their hours of recreation they can become better able to struggle—if only because they gain a fuller sense of what is to be gained by struggle.

I have learned to hate with equal intensity those who argue that having enough food, clothing and house accommodation is a matter of minor importance, and those who think these things the only things that are important.

That we shall get each of us enough of the basic necessities of life is not all we demand—we need comforts and refinements as well, and also reasonable luxuries such as enriched leisure—leisure, that is to say, enriched by social facilities which will make it possible for each of us to assimilate for ourselves, and so make a personal possession of, all we can acquire of the historically accumulated cultural achievements of the human race.

This, I take it, is what The Communist Manifesto pointed to, when it demanded a state of things in which “the full development of each will be a condition for the full and free development of all”.

Since we can get these things for all only in a socialist society developing into a communist society, it is this end that we must aim at if we wish to “have life, and that more abundantly”.

Here William Morris’ words have point. Asked how he expected to gain a communist society, Morris answered stoutly:

“Imagination enough to conceive, courage enough to will, Power enough to compel—let these qualities prevail among the due effective majority of society, and then, I say, the thing will be done.”

That is why I regard the systematic cultivation of the imagination—especially among the militant vanguard of working-class struggle—as the most fundamentally revolutionary work that there is to be done.

And as I seem, as much by luck as by judgment, to be equipped for the job, it is to that sector of our work I devote special attention.

I have selected classic fiction to start with because of the many obvious advantages of starting at this point. Although books have grown more costly of recent years, they are still either through public libraries or otherwise easily accessible. They can be picked up or put down at will, and enjoyed at times or in places—in the train for example—where alternative amusements are out of reach. Novels can be read frankly and primarily for entertainment—leaving any instruction that results to happen just as it will. And, finally, if rightly chosen and followed up, a course of novel-reading can lead in almost any cultural direction that can be conceived.

Something is gained if the habitual novel-reader is encouraged to sample the best examples of the novelist’s art rather than work of an inferior grade.

The best novels are already something more than fiction. Their verbal form leads one on insensibly through prose rhythms into poetry, and thence into music and musical appreciation: their imagery leads to the visual arts.

Those who are not addicted to fiction, will, if they try, learn from the best novels that they give an insight into social life, social relations and the historical understanding of those relations such as can be gained in no other way. But each reader must discover, each for himself or herself, what is “best” for them.

“One man’'s meat is another man’s poisont”—mentally and morally as well as physically. I have been conscientiously careful not to confine myself only to my special pets among authors. And I have especially avoided the practice I abhor—the once fashionable practice of so-called “de-bunking”. I have honestly tried to give a fair indication of what the ordinary reader might expect to get from each book or author dealt with—believing as I do that quite a lot of readers who have had nothing special in the way of schooling are held back from enjoying the pleasures and profits of literature from a feeling that they just don’t know where to start.

As I am convinced that in every case the “right” place to begin is where one’s personal interest is most excited, I have tried to write in such a way that each essay may supply somebody or other with just the starting point that he or she is seeking.

Of course, there is a risk attached—that of being misunderstood, or falling foul of violent prejudices. One man wrote to the Daily Worker in fury because I said Walter Scott was, “undeservedly neglected”", while he, the angry one, thought Scott ought to be “neglected” even more than he is. Another wrote to say he “cannot agree with me about Dickens”. Another said the same thing about my treatment of Jane Austen.

I might, if I wished to be rude, reply in the Johnsonian manner: — “Sir, I have given you a reason: I cannot undertake to provide you with an understanding”. I prefer, however, to point out (what should be obvious) that in matters of taste and judgment there is and can be no such thing as “authority”.

The important thing is that my readers should test what I say for themselves. Whether after reading the novels I recommend they agree with me or do not doesn’t matter a straw. What matters is that they should begin to find out for themselves in what direction their taste really lies.

SOURCE: Jackson, T. A. (Thomas Alfred). “Why the Novel?”, in Old Friends to Keep: Studies of English Novels and Novelists (London: Lawrence and Wishart Ltd, 1950), pp. 117-119.

T. A. Jackson by A. L. Morton

On the Jackson Trail” by Peter Osborne

Proletarian Philosophy: A Version of Pastoral?” by Jonathan Rée

British Marxism in Philosophy, Science, and Culture Before the New Left:
Essential Historical Surveys

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Intellectual Life in Society, Conventional and Unconventional, & Related Topics:
A Bibliography in Progress

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 6 January 2019

Site ©1999-2019 Ralph Dumain