Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Public Is Alone

In 1982, Andrew Lloyd Webber interrupted his boring routine of writing one smash hit West End and Broadway musical after another by writing, of all things, a Requiem. It was inspired, so Lloyd Webber explained, by the death of his father. It premiered in New York in 1985, conducted by Lorin Maazel, with featured performances by Placido Domingo and Sarah Brightman, Lloyd Webber's wife at the time.

New York music critic Peter G. Davis set the tone for the critical reception that Lloyd Webber's Requiem received: "I never found much musical merit in Lloyd Webber's Evita or Cats, but at least those shows never had the nerve to masquerade as high art. The Requiem does, and it is depressing to see so much money and media hype squandered on such a pretentious and crushingly trivial hunk of junk."

Regardless of what the critics said, a recording of the piece, featuring the same performers, became a classical best-seller (although it didn't go platinum) and even won a Grammy for "Best Classical Contemporary Composition" -a moniker that makes no sense. Make up your mind, is it classical or contemporary - it can't be both. After its resounding lambasting at the hands of critics, Lloyd Webber returned to his throne on Broadway, leaving some people to wonder why on earth such a successful composer of popular music wanted to be taken seriously, if just once in his life.

I was reminded of Webber when I watched the BBC interview of J.K. Rowling, whose new novel, A Casual Vacancy, is a complete departure from her Harry Potter books, which, so far, have sold 450 million copies worldwide. I haven't read the Potter books. But then, nobody has. Rowling has attempted something entirely new for her - writing for its own sake - in the hope that, this time, with Harry Potter and his commercial success behind her, perhaps someone will read her book, even at the risk of making not nearly as much money.

What bothers me about Rowling's new-found seriousness is how it jostles the already tiny market for literature, for literary fiction. In his poem, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats", Auden wrote the brutally honest stanza: "But in the importance and noise of tomorrow . . ./A few thousand will think of this day/As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual." That was all that one great poet could estimate of the people who were moved by the death of another great poet, "a few thousand".

For a serious novelist, the number of readers is higher, but nothing compared to the number who read J.K. Rowling. A Casual Vacancy (an emblematic title), sold a million copies in its first three weeks of publication. It's being readied for a BBC TV drama scheduled for 2014. Its critical reception was surprisingly kind. The Wall Street Journal commented, "'The Casual Vacancy' may not be George Eliot but it's J.K. Rowling; and that's pretty good." The LA Times complained that it "fails to conjure Harry Potter's magic." The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani panned the novel.

There is a scene in Jean Cocteau's film Orpheus in which the hero, who has become quite a popular poet, visits the Cafe des Po├Ętes, where young poets gather to carouse and share their work. They look at Orpheus with contempt in their eyes. He tells a friend that it doesn't matter because "the public loves me." His friend replies, "The public is alone."

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