John Ruskin was a multi-talented artist, writer, drafter, and social thinker, as well as one of the top art critics of the Victorian age. He also had some goofy ideas about novels that, coincidentally, sound a lot like Coleridge’s. In his book The Elements of Drawing, Ruskin tries to teach his readers to develop their artistic skills, and in the appendix, he tries to teach his readers how to develop a true taste in art and avoid a “false taste in art.” He lists a number of things to do and an equal number to avoid. He suggests that the aspiring artist “should never so much as look at bad art,” cautions his reader that “if you find yourself getting overly fond of” all but a very few artists, “leave off looking at them, for you must be going wrong some way or other,” and very dramatically says “let no lithographic work come into the house, if you can help it, nor even look at any” (except for one or two that are okay). Still, he doesn’t think bad art will cause you any actual damage, other than to your sense of taste. As someone who doesn’t know a lot about visual art, I’m not in any position to criticize his advice other than to say that anyone whose serious advice on art would seem less ridiculous when read by Henry Gordon Jago seriously needs to reconsider their tone. Of course, since I also don’t care anywhere near as much about visual art as John Ruskin, maybe I’m not even in a position to criticize that.
But then we find this:
Finally, your judgment will be, of course, much affected by your taste in literature. Indeed, I know many persons who have the purest taste in literature, and yet false taste in art, and it is a phenomenon which puzzles me not a little: but I have never known any one with false taste in books, and true taste in pictures. It is also of the greatest importance to you, not only for art’s sake, but for all kinds of sake, in these days of book deluge, to keep out of the salt swamps of literature, and live on a rocky island of your own, with a spring and a lake in it, pure and good.
He follows this with a short section on the evils of book reviews printed in magazines, and then knowingly advises his readers, or maybe just asserts haughtily, “Avoid especially that class of literature which has a knowing tone; it is the most poisonous of all.” He goes on to say that no good book ever “asserts haughtily.” A few lines later, we get this gem: “the cold-blooded Crustacean and Batrachian books will sneer at sentiment, and the warm-blooded, human books, at sin…” So whatever his views on books, we can be fairly sure Ruskin would have taken a stand against #Goobergate. Finally, Ruskin advises us that “the more you can restrain your serious reading to reflective or lyric poetry, history, and natural history, avoiding fiction and the drama, the healthier your mind will become.” So not just novels, but fiction in general.
In the same appendix, Ruskin warns us to read “not so much for the sake of the story as to get acquainted with the pleasant people into whose company these writers bring you.” Keep this in mind as you read the future The Kids These Days and The Novels posts. Ruskin is not the only critic of novels to warn people against plots; we will see much more over-the-top admonitions.
Ruskin isn’t uniformly against fiction. In fact, he gives us a list of approved fiction and then says, “Of course you must, or will read other books for amusement, once or twice; but you will find that these have an element of perpetuity in them”. Of course, with few exceptions, the particular isotope of the element of perpetuity he identifies seems to have a very short half-life. I mean, when was the last time you read Sir Charles Grandison outside of a course of study on the early history of novels?
Between his dislike of magazine reviews and his belief that fiction leads to a false taste in art, you might almost get the feeling that Lord Jeffrey somehow managed to tear himself away from his feud with Coleridge to harass Ruskin, but I can’t find any evidence of that. Ruskin published his only novel at about the same time Jeffrey died, and come one, really, did you think that was going to happen? Obviously not. Maybe Ruskin was just a huge Coleridge fan. After all, Shakespeare is on Ruskin’s short list of non-art-taste-falsifying fiction. Who had just finished turning Shakespeare from a much ignored hack to a much respected artist? None other than Coleridge, and in the very same series of lectures in which novels are blamed for false criticism. Coincidence? Almost certainly, as Ruskin has this to say of STC: “Cast Coleridge at once aside, as sickly and useless.” Of course, he was talking about Coleridge’s poetry. He may have liked Coleridge’s lectures, for all I know. In any case, he and STC share a rather sketchy understanding of how books work.
If Ruskin wasn’t being harassed by Jord Jeffrey and the Edinburg Review, what got him going on books? As I said at the start of this article, Ruskin took visual art far more seriously than I do. That’s really an understatement: Ruskin took all forms of art far more seriously than most people. For example, in Volume IV of Social History of Art, Arnold Hauser says
[A]rtistic decay had never been regarded as the symptom of a disease involving the whole body of society and there has never been such a clear awareness of the organic relationship between art and life as since Ruskin. He was indubitably the first to interpret the decline of art and taste as the sign of a general cultural crisis, and to express the basic, and even today not sufficiently appreciated, principle that the conditions under which men live must first be changed, if their sense of beauty and their comprehension of art are to be awakened. […] Ruskin was also the first person in England to emphasize the fact that art is a public concern and its cultivation one of the most important tasks of the state, in other words, that it represents a social necessity and that no nation can neglect it without endangering its intellectual existence. He was, finally, the first to proclaim the gospel that art is not the privilege of artists, connoisseurs and the educated classes, but is part of every man’s inheritance and estate.
In his 1864 lecture “Traffic,” Ruskin says
But you may answer or think, ‘Is the liking for outside ornaments, — for pictures, or statues, or furniture, or architecture, — a moral quality?’ Yes, most surely, if a rightly set liking. Taste for any pictures or statues is not a moral quality, but taste for good ones is. […] [I]t is not an indifferent nor optional thing whether we love this or that; but it is just the vital function of all our being. What we like determines what we are, and is the sign of what we are; and to teach taste is inevitably to form character.
Ruskin held that visual art, like the written or spoken word, was a mode of communication, and a very powerful one. While he never believed that liking bad art actually makes one a bad person, he does believe that changing a person’s taste in art and changing who and what that person is are connected. His very next sentences in “Traffic” are
As I was thinking over this, in walking up Fleet Street the other day, my eye caught the title of a book standing open in a bookseller’s window. It was — ‘On the necessity of the diffusion of taste among all classes.’ ‘Ah,’ I thought to myself, ‘my classifying friend, when you have diffused your taste, where will your classes be? The man who likes what you like, belongs to the same class with you, I think. Inevitably so. You may put him to other work if you choose; but, by the condition you have brought him into, he will dislike the other work as much as you would yourself. You get hold of a scavenger, or a costermonger, who enjoyed the Newgate Calendar for literature, and “Pop goes the Weasel” for music. You think you can make him like Dante and Beethoven? I wish you joy of your lessons; but if you do, you have made a gentleman of him: — he won’t like to go back to his costermongering.’
For Ruskin, taste in literature was not far from a taste in art or an outlook on life. What you like to look at, what you like to read, and how you see the world are all closely connected to him, and to change one, the others must be changed as well. But why novels in particular? Well, no doubt he would be all upset about texting or video games were he alive today, but in his time being upset about novels was just the trendy thing. As far as I know, Ruskin didn’t quite go in for the literary equivalent of the sign that once hung on the wall of my favorite barbecue restaurant, “Fast food ain’t good, and good food ain’t fast.” However, he very strongly felt that mass production and banging out one thing after another were incompatible with genuine art, so maybe the sheer rate of production of novels worried him. I’m just guessing, though. About the only reason he actually gives for his concern over novels is at the end of the appendix to The Elements of Drawing, where he says “Much of the literature of the present day […] has a tendency to agitate rather than confirm, and leaves its readers too frequently in a helpless or hopeless indignation.” I’m not quite sure how this particular issue feeds specifically into a false taste in art and nothing else, though.
In a lecture entitled “Of Kings’ Treasuries,” Ruskin explains just how much he values the written word. A book isn’t just a book in his mind. It is a conversation with a significant person in history, and in his mind, nobody who hasn’t had quite a few of these conversations should even be allowed out of the house on their own. “[I]n fact,” he says on page 29, “unless you are a very singular person, you cannot be said to have any ‘thoughts’ at all; that you have no materials for them, in any serious matters; – no right to ‘think'”. For example, he says, unless you can explain Shakespeare’s opinions on church authority, you have no right to hold an opinion on church authority at all. Leaving aside the distinct possibility that this is about as reasonable as saying “Unless you can explain all the references in that season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where the gang went to college, you have no right to have an opinion on higher education,” we can clearly see that Ruskin is passionate about the power of books. On page 9, he divides books into “books of the hour” (those that won’t last) and “books of all time” (those that have that element of perpetuity in them). Let’s also leave aside the way his list of books of all time in The Elements of Drawing really turned out to be, at best, “books of the century.” Shockingly, Ruskin holds no ill will toward “books of the hour,” saying “we ought to be entirely thankful for them, and entirely ashamed of ourselves if we make no good use of them.” So what did he have against such a large class of books? We find out in the very next sentence: “But we make the worst possible use if we allow them to usurp the place of true books”. And that’s what he thought about the good books of the hour. Again, like Coleridge, at least some of Ruskin’s attack on novels is based on his very strong views about the good that books should be doing for the world and, presumably, his disappointment that the “book deluge” isn’t really contributing to that good. I’m still not sure what this has to do with one’s taste in art in particular.
It’s always possible that I’ve missed something else Ruskin had to say about books. He wasn’t big on picking clear titles for his lectures or books. (“Of Kings’ Treasuries” was in a collection of lectures titled Sesame and Lilies. It was the sesame.) If you find something relevant that I’ve missed, please let me know.
As a side note, sixteen years before The Elements of Drawing, John Ruskin actually wrote a novel. The King of the Golden River or The Black Brothers: A Legend of Stiria, was a fairy tale in which two immoral brothers are turned into stones while their virtuous younger brother becomes a wealthy man. What does Ruskin have to say about that? In Praeterita, he writes
The ‘King of the Golden River’ was written to amuse a little girl; and being a fairly good imitation of Grimm and Dickens, mixed with a little true Alpine feeling of my own, has been rightly pleasing to nice children, and good for them. But it is totally valueless, for all that. I can no more write a story than compose a picture.
Ruskin doesn’t mention that The King of the Golden River was a rather popular novel – it sold out three editions not long after it was published, and according to an 1887 interview with Ruskin’s publisher, was much loved by the London School Board, which gave copies out as prizes. These many readers were not Ruskin’s target audience, though. While the book was published in 1851, Ruskin actually wrote it ten years earlier for Effie Gray, then twelve years old. Effie married John in 1848 and had their marriage annulled in 1854. In 1855 she married his friend John Everett Millais. Two years later Ruskin wrote his comical warning about the dangers of fiction. I have absolutely no evidence to say that his failed marriage caused him to look unfavorably on certain kinds of literature – his views on art, morality, and life are more than enough to account for his screed on novels in The Elements of Drawing – but even thirty years later, Ruskin went so far as to omit any mention of having ever been married from his autobiography.
How well did Ruskin do? He made only one attack on fiction, and Coleridge beat him to it by almost half a century. However, I’m going to give him half a point for his line in “Traffic” about not wanting to go back to costermongering. That sounds like undermining legitimate authority if I’ve ever heard it. Of course, to Ruskin, undermining authority was a good reason to make art more widespread.
|Stimulation of violence, sadism, and criminality||❌|
|Undermining of sexual morality and legitimate authority||½|
|Promotion of passivity through narcotization, hypnosis, and desensitization||❌|
|Substitution of fantasy for reality; promotion of escapism||❌|
|Promotion of stereotypy, distortion, oversimplification, and irrelevance||❌|
|Deliberate emotional manipulation and exploitation of consumers||❌|
|Destruction of literacy||❌|
|Weakening of family ties||❌|
|Destruction of artistic integrity and creativity in society||✅|
|Homogenization of culture at the lowest level||❌|
|Promotion of materialism and conformity||❌|
|Making readers less intelligent||❌|
|Posing an actual physical risk to health||❌|
|Being addictive in the same way that drugs or alcohol are||❌|
|Being metaphorically (or literally) infectious, toxic, or venomous||❌|
|Causing the end of some mythical golden age, or at least reminding us of its end||❌|
|Being fun or pleasant, since nothing fun or pleasant can be good for you||❌|
For those of you keeping score at home, I should remind you that Ruskin specifically counseled against reading novels for the plot. He couldn’t tell the difference between very specific, establishment-approved, old white dudes writing for very specific purposes in very specific cultural contexts and brilliant, generous, nigh-divine beings writing to share their universal wisdom with all people in all times and all cultural contexts. While fear of novels has generally disappeared over the last 150 years, or more accurately shifted to fear of movies, television, video games, and eventually cell phones, the fear of plot and some confusion about the value of literature are both alive and well in academic circles. To be fair, though, Ruskin never met a case of hyperbole that he didn’t like, but once he worked the hyperbole out of his system, he had a lot of good things to say. No matter how pompous and bombastic he sounds in the quotes I’ve included in this article, he was a very clever, very insightful person. I very much doubt that he would have been fooled into publishing the 1870s equivalent of “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in Fors Clavigera, his series of pamphlets, just because 19th Century Alan Sokal included a few sketchy quotes about math and science from Shakespeare and Herodotus.
Next time on The Kids These Days, we’ll have a look at what Clara Reeve says. Reeve, who wrote novels that were not intended to get children to marry her, identifies a new source of literary danger: libraries!