Literacy, publication, and prizes

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The links between mass literacy and personal aspiration, eccentric desires and public requirements always proved unbridgeable when the medium was print – public duty being abandoned in favour of craftmanship and inspiration. This was in no little part due to the essential intervention of capitalist activity in the realm of printed aesthetics. It should not be forgotten how many respectable publishers and proprietors began their lives in the underworld of publishing for a mass or ‘semi-literate’ readership. Rupert murdoch, after all, financed The Times from profits earned at The Sun. A previous entrepreneurial newsman, Alfred Harmsworth, the future Lord Northcliffe, proprietor of The Times from 1908 and one of Britain’s greatest media magnates, began as a journalist who dealt in anecdote and trivia and was the founder of Answers to Correspondents on Every Subject Under the Sun which specialized in sensationalist competitions and sold at a penny an issue. Nor should it be forgotten that his bedside reading was The Newgate Calendar, nor that his career began with George Newnes proprietor of both Tit Bits and the Strand.

Through such publications the new reading public satisfied its curiosity about the world and itself; curiosity about self now competed with public duty. During the age of criminilization the world of Newgate already represented a sentimental nostalgia for a history determined by hero robbers and larger-than-life thief takers. Harmsworth’s personality was already sentimentaliszed in parallel with and no less than his readers’. Where Marx and Engel saw the masses, Harmsworth and his brother saw also the individual.” (20)

Bloom cites Peter Haining (ed The Fantastic Pulps) as stating: “The disillusionment that followed the war, the frustration over the mushrooming gangster control of the cities affected the detective story as much as it did mainstream fiction. And the 1920s occupation with the American language, the dissatisfaction with the Victorian rhetoric and polite exposition was nowhere more strongly felt than among the writers of private eye stories.” (21) Bloom continues: “Attempting to compensate for uneven sales [H.L.] Mencken [co-owner of The Smart Set] began Black Mask in 1920. Highly successful and hugely influential, the magazine proved an embarassment for Mencken who referred to it as ‘our new louse’. He finally sold the enterprise and returned to defending culture.

This two-tiered publishing and reading system was repeated on both sides of the Atlantic. However, by the middle twentieth century even though many entrepreneurial and opportunistic Victorian publishers had consolidated their position and become large corporate enterprises they gave rise to a flourishing subsystem of pulp publishers which existed alongside them. Such publishers included Thorpe & Porter and E.H. and Irene Turney in Britain who between them ran a stable of extraordinarily named pulp authors who enjoyed universal success in the aftermath of World War II and the early years of the welfare state – years in which American imports were restricted.

Even the Booker Prize, established in 1968 in Britain to ratify the art of the novel was the consequence of a shrewd move made to establish a public profile and respectability for a long-time food business. The prize grew out of an idea by Tom Maschler and Graham C. Greene of Jonathan Cape. Cape had bought Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale and Fleming had created a company called Glidrose to protect potential profits. Booker chairman Jock Campbell who was a friend of Fleming, bought the company and put Booker into the publishing business. Originally named Artists Services, Booker Books already represented a number of authors by 1968 and had acquired 51 per cent of the rights to Agatha Christie. The entire sequence of events had been determined as much by commercial interest as by aesthetic concern.” (21)

Again, Bloom continues: “If significant authors were accorded the privilege of such prizes others had this recognition refused both by working practice and by social and cultural expectation. What recognition, and by what hierarchy of definitions can one begin to bring to visibility the writers who were refused canonic status and whose style was demoted to [-p.22] mere technical skill? Such writers, even those who are popular classics (a bizarre status), are refused a meaningful place within the fluctuations of literary culture. At best, they become sociologically interesting, at worst they become pathological cases.” (21-22)

“If Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan and Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming, are second-league popular classics” Bloom notes, “what becomes of Sidney Horler, Guy Thorne, William Le Queux or Sax Rohmer who are remembered but barely read, or Barbara Cartland, Catherine Cookson or (from a quite different direction) horror writer Shaun Hutson, who are all read but certainly not recognized….” (22)

Bloom cites Lee Server (Danger is my Business): “the pulp-created genres – science fiction, horror, private eye, Western, superhero – now dominate not only popular literature but every sort of mass entertainment, from movies and television to comic books. This legacy will remain long after the last of the pulp magazines themselves – haphazardly saved and physically unsuited for preservation – have all turned to dust.” (25)

Ref: (italics in original) Clive Bloom (1996) Cult Fiction: Popular reading and pulp theory. Macmillan Press Ltd: London

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