Monday, September 15, 2014

Crime Stories and Their Audiences by Colin Watson

Mysterious Press, 1971

‘It is more that fifteen years since Colin Watson’s Snobbery with Violence first appeared, a pioneer study using crime fiction, that most popular form of reading, to, in the author’s own words in his chapter on the thirties vogue for oriental villains ‘tell something about the way…people thought, what they feared and what they despised.’ There have been academic studies of popular fiction in much of this field since, chiefly American in origin, but none I think seriously supersedes this book and certainly none can be read with anything like as much ease and pleasure.’(Preface by H.R.F. Keating, 1986)’

‘that School of Snobbery with Violence that runs like a thread of good-class tweed through twentieth-century literature.’- Alan Bennett

Charging commercial institutions with failure to educate public taste is an indulgence from which intellectuals will only be deterred when they grasp that a non-existent contract can neither be breeched or enforced. If commerce is to be indicted for anything, it can only be for commercialism, and whether that is a crime or not is a political question. Very few people who walked into the High Street from a library forty yeas ago with three or four thrillers and romances under their arm had the slightest misgivings about the freedom of choice they had just exercised. Even fewer would have been prepared for a moment to credit that the ‘good read to which they were looking forward was part of a process that debilitated taste, shrank discrimination and impoverished thought.

Despite the economic crisis, chronic unemployment and widespread misery in industrial areas, the mood of the people not immediately affected by these things was predominantly one of satisfaction. Gilt-edged Victorian and Edwardian optimism had taken a far less severe a knock from the murderous futility of the 1914-18 war than one might suppose. The middle class had suffered its share of casualties, of course, but it mourned them as it would have mourned bereavement by pneumonia or motor accident. Anger was hardly felt at all, and if there was little of the kind of pride which a nation-wide clutter of memorial masonry made pretence of witnessing, the ‘sacrifice’ by so many fathers and sons and brothers and uncles was accepted by most as having been a dutiful and responsible act. The Great Bore was over, the threat from foreigners had been remove for the moment, and the prospect visible from city suburb, commuters’ village and provincial township was one of secure continuance of the old order and its gradual enrichment by the innovations of progress.

Thus it was quite possible to be leading a comfortable existence in a pleasant residential area of Gloucester or Hereford and be genuinely unaware that less than fifty miles away in the Welsh valleys whole communities were living on a bare survival level. Kindly Londoners who would have been shocked by the spectacle of a child shivering with cold simply refused to believe stores of schools on Tyneside in which, summer and winter, nearly half the pupils sat barefoot in class. The stories were true, as were those of Durham shipyard towns where only one man in three had a job, and areas in Lancashire and Cumberland were malnutrition had hoisted the tuberculosis rate to between ten and twenty times that of the Home Counties. But distance – even a short distance – was a great insulator of conscience. So was the notion, inherited from the Victorian self-help school, that misfortune was somehow the consequence of fecklessness and therefore the unalterable lot of those who had allowed themselves to slip to the bottom of the pile. Yet another aid to the equanimity of the comfortably placed was the preoccupation of the Press with cheerful and trivial themes. With very few exceptions indeed newspapers were dedicated to the profitable Northcliffe slogan ‘give the public what it wants.’

What the public – the middle class, reading public – clearly did not want was disquieting dispatches from beyond the frontiers of its own experience. Circulation managers noted that too frequent reference to menacing political situations abroad depressed sales, as did ‘sordid’ stories of industrial depression at home. News selection and treatment were adjusted accordingly. The News Chronicle (formerly Dicken’s Daily News) was practically alone among national daily newspapers in consistently presenting foreign and home events with due regard to the realities of the situation. The readers of the rest were shown an Italy and Germany whose rulers, while not quite gentlemen, perhaps, were too busy building autobahns and getting trains to run on time for the entertainment of any aggressive intentions; a Russia of measureless malignance and cardboard tanks; a France consisting of the Promenade des Anglais, rude night clubs and the Maginot Line; and a motherland to which prosperity was slowly and surely returning while Mr. Baldwin tamped his pipe, Mr. MacDonald mixed his metaphors, and Gracie Fields led a crowd of happy, be-shawled mill girls in a chorus of ‘Sing As We Go.’

The euphoric conspiracy was not completely solid. Apart from the predictable fusillade from left-wing polemicists, there came protests from relatively respectable quarters. Wells warned and Shaw taunted. George Orwell’s dark prophesies frightened a few people. Hilaire Belloc declared England to be ‘done’ before he lapsed into since in order to contemplate the enormity of the demolition of Hanacker Mill. The intellectual poet, Auden and Isherwood, blistered the smug compatriots whose salvation they were to leave others to complete when the opted for America in 1939. A particularly unkind cut, coming as it did from the author of  The Good Companions, 1929’s top favorite among solid citizens, was delivered by J.B Priestly in 1934. His English Journey confirmed by personal testimony that there exited on a large scale places and conditions of unimaginable awfulness. Some library committees in the areas he described, persuaded that Mr. Priestly had been less than fair, declined to stock the book.

Outside the rotting industrial areas, developments favorable to the expansion of a ‘leisure’ literature continued steadily during the 1920s and 1930s…by the end of this period crime, adventure and romance fiction accounted for three-quarters of all novels published in the English language…..

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