So witless are the worlds of television and pop music that when, from time to time, a figure emerges in their midst who is capable of stringing a few coherent sentences together, they are held up as intellectual titans of our age. One thinks of Stephen Fry, regularly – if inexplicably – acclaimed as the possessor of the largest and most pulsating brain on this or any other planet. It is a case of Triton among the minnows, the majority of television persons being so vacuous and stupid that someone like Fry can dazzle simply by using words of three or more syllables.
The delusion is even more pronounced in pop music, and nowhere more preposterously than in the adulation of the lead singer of The Smiths, a band that split up a quarter of a century ago. His autobiography has now been published as a Penguin Classic. Reread and digest that sentence, please, for it tells us much about the pitiable state of our culture, if indeed we could still be said to have one.
What we have here is a combination of overweening vanity (on the part of the pop singer) and the sacrifice of any literary credibility to hard-headed marketing (on the part of the publisher). It would be bad enough had Penguin issued it as a Modern Classic, the usual imprint for suitably recognised works written after 1918. But no, this solipsistic screed is deemed worthy for inclusion in what the Penguin website still maintains is an imprint devoted to “the best literature of several thousand years and countless cultures”.
When the pop singer said “I’d like my book to be published as a Penguin Classic”, the correct response would have been “You are ridiculous. Go away.”
My thoughts are with E. V. Rieu, a proper scholar, the original editor of the Penguin Classics list, who died in 1972. The poor man will be turning in his grave.