Richard Hoggart (right) at the 1960 Pilkington Committee. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Richard Hoggart on why American novels are better than British ones

From the archive, 6 September 1958: Working-class people "are attracted to certain American novels, I think, chiefly because they find in them a wider emotional keyboard and a more demotic (less class-defined) language than in most contemporary British novels."

"We are, in fact, [an]...emotionally expressive people," Richard Hoggart wrote in 1958. A totemic figure in British public and literary life, who published over 15 books in his 40 year career, Richard Hoggart's deep-rooted understanding and analysis of the British psyche gave him a unique perspective on the society that held him in such high regard.

His high-profile career in later life belied his early struggles. Born in 1918, he was an orphan by the age of eight and was raised by his grandmother and aunt in Leeds. After winning a scholarship to read English at Leeds University, Hoggart soon propelled himself into the highest echelons of public life, writing and editing prolifically throughout the latter half of the century. His testimony as an expert witness in the Lady Chatterly's Lover trial was decisive in the outcome of the case that liberalised British pornography. He was instrumental in - which is to say, pretty much wrote - the 1962 Pilkington Report, which led to the creation of BBC2.

What Hoggart will be remembered for the most, however, is his masterpiece The Uses of Literacy, which was published in 1957. Ostensibly a book concerned with the "massification" of British cultural life, it cast a sprawling and affectionate gaze over urban working-class life. He examined the ways in which British society was being shaped by mass media, particularly from America, and found that "we are moving towards the creation of a mass culture, that the remanants of what was at least in part an urban culture 'of the people' are being destroyed".

- Amy Hawkins

The Unsuspected Audience
Richard Hoggart

You can find devoted and unsuspected readers of contemporary American fiction scattered all over Britain. They do not read the sex-and-gangster novelettes; nor are they, necessarily, from among those we call intellectuals. Off-hand, I remember one who is a house-painter, one a railway clerk and one a motor mechanic. But they are good readers, and they seem to be making here an interesting critical choice. They are attracted to certain American novels, I think, chiefly because they find in them a wider emotional keyboard and a more demotic (less class-defined) language than in most contemporary British novels. As to the first quality, think of The Great Gatsby:

And as I sat brooding there of the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He has come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

The weaknesses of such a passage are easy to see. But they are the excesses of a possible strength. Fitzgerald is willing to be rhetorical in the face of his own emotional experience, wondering, unsprecribed and herioc. He is much less sure than Turgenev; yet the nature of his romanticism, a sort of vibrant acceptance before the feelings, recalls Turgenev more than any British novelist (excpet, perhaps Conrad, and he only wrote in English).

"The fact that British fiction is firmly placed, socially and culturally, gives it considerable initial advantages - especially in the analysis of personal relations (so much about one's social identity can simply be taken for granted) and in assurance of personal tine. American fiction, by contrast, often seems to be seeking to establish initially the identity of the writer and his relation to an audience ('Call me Ishmael...'), and does not to the same degree suggest a prior provision of accepted tones or weighting of words:

I am an American, Chicago born - Chicago, that somber city - and go at things as I have taught myself, free style, and will make the record in my own way; first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles

The directness, the initial statement identity, the oral movement, the single personality in whom self-sufficiency takes the place of the assurance of a group, cannot be explained simply by the demands of the of a particular first-person narrative. They recur too often in authors other than Bellow. They suggest in part that these writers do not assume an audience with a known emotional register, that they have almost to create their own emotional pitch as they go along and establish it with their readers. But in fact first-person narrative may be more common in American fiction than in British: it is used, to name only some recent books, in A Farewell to Arms, The Catcher in the Rye, All The King's Men, The Great Gatsby and Invisible Man. It is as though, writing within a relatively unarticualted society, these authors feel a need to immerse a narrating character directly in the destructive element, in the painful and loved mass of American experience. Such a situation need not exclude complexity and irony towards the experience.

Our own novels so often proclaim their origin in a prescribed and literary world:

He was struggling in every direction; he was the centre of the writhing and kicking knot of his own body. There was no up and no down, no light and no air. He felt his mouth open of itself and the shrieked word burst out. 'Help!'

William Golding's Pincher Martin has one of the most dramatic openings of any recent British novel: a shipwrecked sailor is clinging to a rock in mid-Atlantic, desperately holiding on to a life already as good as lost. Put it alongside some contemporary American openings: 'I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook...'; 'To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast...'; 'If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like...'.

British fiction tends to be remarkably assured socially, then, to have a confident sense of the way syntax shall be employed to express this kind of quality, this sort of social attitude:

Except for the Marabar Caves - and they are twenty miles off - the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary. Edged rather than washed by the Ganges, it trails for a couple of miles along the bank, scarcely distinguishable from the rubbish it deposits so freely. There are no bathing-steps of the river-front, for the Ganges happens not to be holy here; indeed there is no river-front, and bazars shut out the wide and shifting panorama of the stream. The streets are mean, the temples ineffective, and though a few fine houses exist they are hidden away in gardens or down alleys whose filth deters all but the invited guest.

It is a finely perceptive and imaginative passage - and admirably sure. Sure in the movement of its periods, in its sense of the relative values of words, in its light ironies and its social resonances. It knows how to communicated effectively to a defined 'civilised' group. And though A Passage to India is more than 30 years old now, the qualities I have indicated sibstantially survive - in Elizabeth Bowen, C. P. Snow, Angus Wilson, L. P. Hartley and many others.

When I was teaching in America, my students were fascinated and rather puzzled by the whole tonal quality of A Passage to India. A British reader of the kind I have in mind, even though he will probably belong to a class very different from Forster's, is unlikely to feel alien since British culture is intricately and domestically interwoven. Such a person will probably read Forster with pleasure and respect. Yet he is likely to feel in a certain way outside the experience. In Britain, as presumably in most European countries, anyone who seeks to become 'cultured' has to some degree to assimilate himself to the ways of feelingand expression of the traditional high-bourgeois culture of his country. Since this group is, almost by definition, intelligent and sensitive, the process has much to offer. A reader from outside will find an emotional scale which works by restraint, obliquity and understatement, which delicately modulates its voice and avoids any rhetoric of the emotions. It often has powerful emotions, of course - one thinks of what has been called 'regulated hatred' in Jane Austen or of the controlled murderousness of Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels. The question of attitude towards the emotions , how they are played out, presented to the world and the self (e.g. in Mrs Ramsay or Mrs Moore). How often does a man 'break down' and cry in an English novel? And the scale is played with a language whose touch is precise and can be intense, but which tends to avoid the large and open, the grotesque and splendid words, in favour of shaded words words which gain their strength from angle and from subtle internal resonances.

But this beautifully established manner of expression will be different from that which a British reader, not from the cultured middle-classes, is used to employing. Some of his kinds of response to experience will be all the time held back. And the attraction of some American novels seems to indicate that they more truly express part of such a reader's experience, because of their larger emotional scale and greater directness of expression. This is not a polite way of saying that American novels are coarse-grained, loose and melodramatic, though sometimes they are. These are the dangers of a venturesome rhetoric, as our dangers are forms of well-bred debilitation.

Genius will no doubt look after itself, but for most British authors it is extremely difficult to write outside the emotional and liguistic forms of the cultured world. Even with the occasional tours de force, such as some of the work of Joyce Cary, we are usually aware that they are tours de force. More often we find an invented idiosyncrasy of language masking a failure to capture different emotional rhythms. Sons and Lovers, after more than 40 years, remains the outstanding example of fidelity to emotional patterns not normally approached in modern British fiction. We may realise sharply how firm and pervasive is the verbal and emotional register of the British 'literary happy family' (to use Auden's phrase) if we put one of our recent 'dissident' books, Lucky Jim, at the side of Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. George Orwell is one of the few contemporary British novelists who showed, in his novels of dingy lower-middle-class life, that he knew of the enormous gult that had to be crossed. He did not succeed, but he did well enough to make him an especiallly sympathetic author to the readers I am discussing.

I have flown a large kite in a small space, but I will risk one even larger. I wonder whether my 'unsuspected' audience may be one sign - I think there are others - of the eventual emergence of a new serious reading public, one less and less likely simply to take over the forms of expression of previously established culture-groups. We are, in fact, a much more emotionally expressive people than would would guess from say, the usually prescribed course of reading in The British Novel in the Twentieth Century. This helps to explain the attraction of Graham Greene - he really writes the rude words on the wall. I am not anxious to hail the advent of a lower-middle or working-class literary culture. I hope that what emerges will not allow itself to be formulated in that kind of way. Yet it does seem possible that once a new generation of writers no longer feel vertiginous about their postion, and so neither adopt other people's ways of feeling not become defiantly strident about their own, they may produce fiction with an emotional scale and expressiveness that we have not heard in British literature for a long time.

First published in the New Statesman, 6 September 1958

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Snakebites and body parts

The city at the edge of an apocalypse: a love letter to Los Angeles.

I was emailing with Kenneth Anger, the film-maker, when the coyotes across the street in Griffith Park started howling.

That’s partially true.

I was emailing him to ask if he’d direct a music video for me. Maybe Lucifer Rising 2.0. Or anything.

Just him in the kitchen making tea, as recorded on his iPhone.

Kenneth Anger is alive and well in Santa Monica, so why not ask him to direct a video for me? Hopefully, he’ll respond. We’ve never met, so I sent an email to him, not with him. That’s the partial truth.

But the coyotes did start howling.

It’s the single best sound in Los Angeles, or any city. Is there another city where you can email an 89-year-old devotee of Aleister Crowley while listening to a few dozen coyotes screaming and howling and ripping the night into little pieces?

No. Just here. This oddness by the sea and an inch from a billion acres of Arrakis.

I never thought I’d end up living in Los Angeles, but I’ve ended up living in Los Angeles. This dirtiest, strangest paradise.

Yesterday I went hiking in a two-million-acre state park that’s 30 minutes from my house. A state park bigger than all of New York City. And it’s 30 minutes away. With no people. Just bears and pumas and coyotes and snakes.

And other things. Abandoned bridges. An observatory where Albert Einstein used to go to watch space.

What a strange city.

A perfect city. Perfect for humans at the edge of this strangely unfolding apocalypse. A gentle apocalypse with trade winds and Santa Ana winds and the biannual vicious storm that rips eucalyptus trees up by their roots.

What a strange city. And it’s my home.

Today I hiked to the back of the Hollywood sign. This was before Kenneth Anger and the coyotes.

The tourists were dropping like flies on the long, hot mountain trail, not aware that this isn’t a city with the safe European ­infrastructure that keeps them happy
and/or alive.

Every now and then, a tourist dies in the hills, bitten by a snake or lost at night. The emergency rooms are full of tourists with snakebites and heatstroke.

Where are the European safeguards?

Fuck us if we need safeguards. Go live in a place like this gentle wasteland where you’re not at the top of the food chain. If you’re not in danger of being eaten at some point in the day, you’re probably not breathing right.

I hope Kenneth Anger writes back.


22 May

I drove some friends around my neighbourhood. They want to live here. Why wouldn’t they? Pee-wee Herman and Thom Yorke live up the street.

David Fincher lives a block away. It’s blocks and blocks of jasmine-scented name-

It’s warm in the winter and it’s weird all year round.

And there’s a Frank Lloyd Wright that looks like a lunatic Mayan spaceship.

And there go the coyotes again, howling like adorable delegates of death.

They’re so smart, I wish they would make me their king.

You hate Los Angeles? Who cares? You made a mistake, you judged it like you’d judge a city. Where’s the centre?

There’s no centre. You want a centre? The centre cannot hold. Slouching towards Bethlehem. Things fall apart.

Amazing how many titles can come from one poem. What’s a gyre?

Yeats and Kenneth Anger and Aleister Crowley. All these patterns.

Then we had brunch in my art deco pine-tree-themed restaurant, which used to sell cars and now sells organic white tea and things.

The centre cannot hold. I still have no idea what a gyre is.

Maybe something Irish or Celtic.

It’s nice that they asked me to write this journal.

Things fall apart.

So you hate Los Angeles? Ha. It still loves you, like the sandy golden retriever it is. Tell me again how you hate the city loved by David Lynch and where David Bowie made his best album? Listen to LA Woman by the Doors and watch Lynch’s Lost Highway and read some Joan Didion – and maybe for fun watch Nightcrawler – and tell me again how you hate LA.

I fucking love this sprawling inchoate pile of everything.

Even at its worst, it’s hiding something baffling or remarkable.

Ironic that the city of the notoriously ­vapid is the city of deceiving appearance.

After brunch, we went hiking.

Am I a cliché? Yes. I hike. I do yoga. I’m a vegan. I even meditate. As far as clichés go, I prefer this to the hungover, cynical, ruined, sad, grey cliché I was a decade ago.

“You’re not going to live for ever.”

Of course not.

But why not have a few bouncy decades that otherwise would’ve been spent in a hospital or trailing an oxygen tank through a damp supermarket?


24 May

A friend said: “The last time I had sex, it was warm and sunny.”

Well, that’s helpful.

October? June? February?

No kidding, the coyotes are howling again. I still love them. Have you ever heard a pack of howling coyotes?

Imagine a gaggle of drunk college girls who also happened to be canine demons. Screaming with blood on their teeth.

It’s such a beautiful sound but it also kind of makes you want to hide in a closet.

No Kenneth Anger.

Maybe I’m spam.

Vegan spam.

Come on, Kenneth, just make a video for me, OK?

I’ll take anything.

Even three minutes of a plant on a radiator.

I just received the hardcover copy of my autobiography, Porcelain. And, like anyone, I skimmed the pictures. I’m so classy, eating an old sandwich in my underpants.

A friend’s dad had got an advance copy and was reading it. I had to issue the cautious caveat: “Well, I hope he’s not too freaked out by me dancing in my own semen while surrounded by a roomful of cross-dressing Stevie Nicks-es.”

If I ever have kids, I might have one simple rule. Or a few simple rules.

Dear future children of mine:

1) Don’t vote Republican.

2) Don’t get facial tattoos.

3) Don’t read my memoir.

I don’t need my currently unmade children to be reading about their dear dad during his brief foray into the world of professional dominatrixing, even if it was brief.

The first poem I loved was by Yeats: “When You Are Old”. I sent it to my high-school non-girlfriend. The girl I longed for, unrequitedly. I’m guessing I’m not the first person to have sent “When You Are Old” to an unrequited love.

Today the sky was so strangely clear. I mean, the sky is almost always clear. We live in a desert. But today it felt strangely clear, like something was missing. The sun felt magnified.

And then, at dusk, I noticed the gold light slanting through some oak trees and hitting the green sides of the mountains (they were green as we actually had rain over the winter). The wild flowers catch the slanting gold light and you wonder, this is a city? What the fuck is this baffling place?

I add the “fuck” for street cred. Or trail cred, as I’m probably hiking. As I’m a cliché.

You hike, or I hike, in the middle of a city of almost 20 million people and you’re alone. Just the crows and the spiralling hawks and the slanting gold light touching the oak trees and the soon-to-go-away
wild flowers.

The end of the world just feels closer here, but it’s nice, somehow. Maybe the actual end of the world won’t be so nice but the temporal proximity can be OK. In the slanting gold light. You have to see it, the canyons in shadow and the tops of the hills in one last soft glow.

What a strange non-city.


25 May

They asked for only four journal entries, so here’s the last one.

And why is # a “hashtag”?

Hash? Like weird meat or weird marijuana? Tag, like the game?

At least “blog” has an etymology, even if, as a word, it sounds like a fat clog in a drain.

A friend who works in an emergency room had a patient delivered to her who had a croquet ball in his lower intestine. I guess there’s a lesson there: always have friends who work in emergency rooms, as they have the best stories.

No coyotes tonight. But there’s a long, lonesome, faraway train whistle or horn. Where?

Where in LA would there be a long, lonesome, faraway train whistle or horn?

It’s such a faraway sound. Lonesome hoboes watching the desert from an empty train car. Going where?

I met a woman recently who found human body parts in some bags while she
was hiking.

Technically, her dogs found them.

Then she found the dogs.

And then the sky was full of helicopters, as even in LA it’s unusual to have human hands and things left in bags near a hiking trail a few hundred yards from Brad Pitt’s house.

What is this place?

When I used to visit LA, I marvelled at the simple things, like gas stations and guest bedrooms.

I was a New Yorker.

And the gas stations took credit cards. At. The. Pumps.

What was this magic?

And people had Donald Judd beds in their living rooms, just slightly too small for actual sleeping – but, still, there’s your Donald Judd bed. In your living room at the top of the hill somewhere, with an ocean a dozen miles away but so clear you can see Catalina.

They drained the reservoir and now don’t know what to do with it.

Good old LA, confused by things like empty reservoirs in the middle of the city.

Maybe that’s where the lonesome train lives. And it only comes out at night, to make the sound of a lonesome train whistle, echoing from the empty concrete reservoir that’s left the city nonplussed.

“We’ve never had an empty reservoir in the city before.”

So . . . Do something great with it. I know, it’s a burden being given a huge gift of ­empty real estate in the middle of the city.

Tomorrow I’m meeting some more friends who’ve moved here from New York.

“We have a guest bedroom!” they crow.

A century ago, the Griffith Park planners planted redwoods across the street. And now the moon is waning but shining, far away but soft, through the redwoods.

No coyotes, but a waning moon through some towering redwoods is still really OK. As it’s a city that isn’t a city, and it’s my home.


Moby’s memoir, “Porcelain”, is published by Faber & Faber

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad