The Canon: Boys will be Boys

May 13, 2010

Boys will be Boys: The Story of Sweeney Todd, Deadwood Dick, Sexton Blake, Billy Bunter, Dick Barton, et al
By Ernest Sackville Turner

Popular literature is a dangerous commodity. When I began my studies at what was at that time a polytechnic, the world was still Leavisite and the canon was a half-dozen tomes chosen in the lottery that was Frank and his wife Queenie's heads. This was at least an advance on the previous 50 years. Literature now carried "cultural values", which was not a bad thing, and at least gave "EngLit" some social responsibility. It was in the redbricks and in the old polytechnic system, not the old established universities, where the stultifying voice of F.R. Leavis and his moral prescriptions were most effective.

What was wanted was a book that liberated all those "repressed" writers, all the unmentionables that Leavis despised but were loved by their readers. Indeed, all that sub-literature that actually made up the bulk of English literature as it was actually read, but that seemed to contain none of the values we were told lurked in "style" and symbols. These tales were driven instead by bestsellerdom and plain old moneymaking. For me, these were the works of the great undead, those ranks of second fiddles that were the foundation of the canon itself, and they were demanding their own archaeology and revival.

The true discoverers of popular fiction were not Richard Hoggart or Raymond Williams, whose working-class origins gave their work an authenticity peculiar to their time, but writers and journalists who were toffs to a man. T.S. Eliot had dallied with the music hall, and George Orwell had nailed his colours to the mast with his love of Donald McGill and detective fiction, and even when he had qualms about Billy Bunter he wrote with the fondness of one once in love. Francis Claud Cockburn waxed lyrical and satirical about the bestsellers of the pre-war years; Colin Watson wrote the aptly named Snobbery with Violence: English Crime Stories and their Audience in 1971.

Yet the greatest of these studies is Ernest Sackville Turner's Boys will be Boys (1948), the first serious study in English of those lost penny dreadfuls, paperback serials and boys' comics that contained highwaymen and heroes, master criminals and vampires, detectives and cowboys. It is to him alone that the serious investigation of "lost" literature owes its origins. Without Turner's meticulous enthusiasm, this world of commercial fiction would have been but a dusty memory.

Instead, we have revealed to us a world of mass publishing and little-known authors who catered for a readership hungry for genres still in existence today: romance; detective and crime fiction; horror, fantasy and science fiction. Without the expansion of such literature, with its mix-and-match formula, film would have been impoverished and there would certainly have been no James Bond or Jason Bourne, no Harry Potter or Twilight. Turner's genius was to see the sweep of English literature as both broader and shallower, but more rich and toothsome. His work brought back authors, publishing and reading habits long forgotten and in doing so he began the restoration of the fullness that is the English literary tradition.

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