Chick lit has lessons for lit crit, too

June 14, 2002

Text-based analysis has pushed literary history to the sidelines, but we will learn little new without also looking at the history of bestselling fiction, argues Clive Bloom.

Literary history has long been the Cinderella discipline of literary criticism. Discredited as antiquarian and irrelevant in the 1930s, the subject never really recovered, later beaten nearly into oblivion by the ahistoricism of postmodern text-based analysis. The subject seemed doomed - a mere scholarly byway.

Nevertheless, it remains quite clear that the innate and often unconscious snobbery of literary studies can be challenged only if we acknowledge the actual diversity of fiction available, look closely at the gaps in our knowledge, relate these to book production, sales and purchase and truly consider what we mean by our often glib, value-laden terminology. What is, after all, "mass readership" or "popular taste"? Challenges to the canon, for instance, become a side issue when considering pulp fiction, its titles and its authors, unknown as they are to most academics teaching English.

My interest has been in exploring the history of British fiction, embracing the actual diversity of its authors, genres and readers and setting them all within the complex relationships that have long existed between publishers and booksellers. The purpose of my research has been, above all, to challenge judgements about who reads what and why, and to look closely at how our aesthetic beliefs are intimately involved with our purchasing habits, our class and level of literacy. In this, my primary focus has been the bestseller.

What I could not be prepared for was the surprising gulf between expectation and evidence. Across the first 70 years of the 20th century, publishers and retailers kept very few records of bestselling fiction, its authors, its readers, its production or even its distribution. The records I sought were tidied away into box files and ledgers long ago and left to gather dust until Hitler's bombs or American university bulk buying reduced them to an ashy or archival destiny. Only in the past quarter of the last century did proper records make sense of the jumble of information that made up the bestseller market, and these were often contradictory, especially given the guarded nature of the accountant's art.

The recovery of this "lost" history of our treasured reading became an almost archaeological quest, in which pieces of a jigsaw - jacket blurbs, the reminiscences of booksellers, the pages of trade journals, the accounts of long-forgotten family businesses and the memories of readers - blended with the autobiographies of authors. There were also the strangely compelling records of the surveillance methods once employed by anonymous observers working for Mass Observation, who, one day in 1947, secretly followed visitors to a library in Tottenham to record their borrowing habits.

Patterns did emerge, and many were significant. The vast reading public created in the last third of the Victorian age, long used to a diet of cheap newspapers, serialised romances and escapist fiction, was growing into the consumer society we know today and was increasingly secular in its morality.

Around 1911, trade journals began to note a deluge of new fiction, led by writers such as Marie Corelli, who combined secular tales with theosophical, temperance and other spiritual musings and whose books sold in their hundreds of thousands on both sides of the Atlantic. She had begun life as plain Mary Mackay, changed her name and become a celebrity whose words spoke to the common reader - mostly women - on every subject under the sun. Alongside Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine and the racing novelist Nat Gould, Corelli represented the epitome of the new blockbuster novelist. Her publishers exploited every aspect of her status - a pattern later replicated in the Hollywood star system.

Although consolatory and spiritualist books did particularly well in the early 1920s, the first world war released other more violent and exciting passions. It is in this period that the thriller takes on its modern form. New heroes and villains become the order of the day. Sax Rohmer's Dr Fu Manchu made his first appearance in 1913, Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan crossed the Atlantic in 1917, John Buchan (in imitation of American "dime" novels and British "shockers") created the character of Richard Hannay in 1915, while Herman Cyril McNeile ("Sapper") had Bulldog Drummond, and Agatha Christie created Hercule Poirot in 1920. Before the war, Elinor Glyn had caused a scandal with Three Weeks , yet by 1925, Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - "the illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady" (with the innuendo intended) was hailed as "the funniest bookI in England or America". As the cover "blurb" pointed out, "you may blush as you laugh at it, but you cannot help laughing". Things had certainly changed.

By the second world war, the British reading public had an insatiable taste for Americanised stories and for American movies. When paper supplies were cut, British writers turned their hand to producing their own gangster tales. These originated with James Hadley Chase's 1938 novel No Orchids for Miss Blandish and were a huge success for authors such as Peter Cheyney and journeyman writers such as Stephen Francis, who, writing as Hank Janson, led the short-lived but highly successful pulp paperback "mushroom" market. Even Ian Fleming incorporated the violence and sexuality of his arch American rival and predecessor, Mickey Spillane, into his work. At the same time, writers such as Harold Robbins rewrote the old pulp magazine formulas. Alongside Jacqueline Susann and Grace Metallious, he led the paperback revolution of the 1960s, the cheap, disposable and gaudy covers reflecting the liberated, sex-and-shopping lifestyles of the rich and famous or the moral soap-opera world of small-town USA.

If bestsellers come and go and bestselling authors rise only to fall (who now remembers Dolf Wyllarde or reads Sidney Horler?), it remains a curious fact that the genres they chose to utilise often remain static for years. Indeed, on the whole, reading habits are remarkably conservative and consistent. Detective and crime stories still jostle for attention alongside women's romance as they did in the 1930s, when the modern women's romance novel emerged as a distinct form. Yet there are shelves, too, of horror and fantasy (science fiction and "sword and sorcery"), Aga sagas, historical romances, thrillers and sex-and-shopping novels. Even the western adventure continues to find a readership. All can trace a path almost 100 years old: Catherine Cookson to Arnold Bennett and Ethel Dell, Colin Dexter to Agatha Christie, Jilly Cooper to Elinor Glyn and J. K. Rowling to Angela Brazil.

Genre conventions are worked and reworked in hybrid patterns and multiple mixes, glances taken backwards in order to create something contemporary, whether it be Helen Fielding revisiting Jane Austen for the modern 30-something professional woman or Thomas Harris blending FBI serial-killer violence, Gothic monsters and haunted heroines. And in their hybrid nature lies another secret, for modern bestselling fiction remains bestselling only if it can be endlessly recycled in television mini-series, blockbuster movies, videos, DVDs, lifestyle magazines and chat shows - as much a literary as a non-literary phenomenon.

By the late 1970s, bestsellers had become the mainstay of many publishers that were facing recession. Representing less than a thousandth of all fiction titles, such books were the equivalent of winning the literary lottery. Yet bestsellers remain rare creatures, with publishers often lacking expertise in marketing, publicity and research, a position little changed even now. And today, with bookshops offering everything from filter lattes to visits by authors, the bestseller has become even more dominant, pushed in endless serried ranks as the first thing customers see, heaped in discounted piles, promoted by newspaper lists and literary competitions. The quest to trace the bestseller and tell its story is endlessly fascinating, endlessly frustrating and constantly revelatory. We will learn nothing new in literary criticism if close reading is not allied to closer attention to the marginal and seemingly irrelevant history of bestselling fiction, its authors, its distributors and, above all, its readers.

Clive Bloom is professor of English and American studies at Middlesex University and author of Bestsellers : Popular Fiction since 1900 , published by Palgrave on July 5, £14.99.

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