My Missus

John Sutherland

  • Popular Reading and Publishing in Britain, 1914-1950 by Joseph McAleer
    Oxford, 284 pp, £35.00, December 1992, ISBN 0 19 820329 2
  • American Star: A Love Story by Jackie Collins
    Heinemann, 568 pp, £14.99, March 1993, ISBN 0 434 14093 7

A hundred and fifty years ago William Thackeray observed – after a trawl through London bookstalls – that middle-class litterateurs like himself knew (and cared) less about working-class literature than about Lapland. In a much quoted essay twenty years later, Wilkie Collins, after a similar expedition, coined the phrase ‘the Unknown Public’. It was something of a misnomer since the public was well enough known. It was their ‘entertaining literature’ that was the mystery. English society put such a moral premium on advanced literacy that it was shameful for a middle-class person to be caught buying a penny dreadful or a mill-girl romance in anything other than a spirit of intrepid anthropological duty. One glimpses the same nervousness today: the eagerness with which left copies of the Sun are seized on in railway carriages by passengers who could never bring themselves to be seen buying a copy; the eyes studiously averted from the top shelf while buying the Spectator or Private Eye.

Collins concluded, hopefully, that the ‘universal law of progress’ would result in a gentrification of working-class literature. In fact, with the 1870 Education Act and the arrival of magnates like Newnes, Pearson and Harmsworth progress took an opposite turn. ‘Reading for the Millions’ became big business. The proprietors got to know their public very well, and the market was profitably carved into a patchwork of target areas with competition driving standards down rather than up. It was George Orwell who went beyond the Cortez pose of intellectual wonder at the vast unknown expanse of popular reading. The content of the small newsagent’s shop, he declared, ‘is the best available indication of what the mass of the English people really feels and thinks’. Methodical exploration was in order – and perhaps some intervention.

Orwell’s proposition has been generally accepted and the essay in which he made it (‘Boys’ Weeklies’) is among his most reprinted. But despite this lead, as Joseph McAleer notes, ‘mass reading habits have not been the subject of much sustained historical enquiry.’ The unknown public (those readers whose purchases today range from the Sunday Sport, through Guns and Ammo, Mills & Boon, to Asian Babes) are still Laplanders as far as their betters are concerned; nor has academic investigation gone much beyond Orwell’s bathysphere approach. McAleer’s book is one of the first of its kind to work from the archives and business records of the main producers of popular literature. He has selected producers with three very different lines of goods: the Dundee firm of D.C. Thomson (for a hundred years the market leader in comics like Hotspur, Wizard, Rover, Dandy and Beano); Mills & Boon (the world’s most voluminous producer of women’s romance); and the Religious Tract Society (publisher for almost a century of the Boy’s Own Paper). McAleer also uses the records of Tom Harrisson’s Mass-Observation project, which monitored (among much else) Londoners’ reading habits over the period 1937-46.

All publishing history tends towards the condition of statistic and anecdote. McAleer’s book is rich in both departments. The text is studded with graphs and tables which make dreary reading, but furnish a post-Orwellian credibility. More enlivening are the anecdotal plums in the academic pudding. In 1917 the novelist Beatrice Harraden (herself the author of a weepily genteel bestseller, Ships that Pass in the Night) surveyed the reading of wounded Tommies and discovered that their favourite authors were Nat Gould, Charles Garvice and E. Phillips Oppenheim. She defended their lowbrow preferences stoutly: ‘Our wounded warriors have surely earned the right to amuse themselves with the books that please them most, and to be free from the kind of officious pedantry that would seek to thrust upon them literature of a class and type for which they have, as they themselves would say, no use.’ And what of those warriors who had not yet shed their blood in defence of King and Country? An equivalent survey of the reading habits of World War Two Tommies discovered an other ranks’ preference for ‘detective novels and sex stories, especially quasi-pornographic magazines from America’. No surprise here. What does raise the eyebrows is the fact that Oppenheim was still going strong and the revelation by a bemused sergeant in Italy that his men were addicted to the ‘soppy love stories’ of Annie S. Swan. ‘I suppose it means the lads out here have their weak moments,’ he concluded. ‘But Annie S. Swan, I ask you!’

The Mass Observation boxes have proved rich in oral testimony. A complacently newly-wed husband in 1943 seemed to confirm the theory that for sex-hungry working-class girls romantic fiction served the same function as the treacle-coated dummy stuck in the baby’s mouth. It kept the buggers quiet till the real thing came along:

No, I don’t read books, the paper’s all I can do with ... But you should have met my missus before we got married – read – why, she was always at it, morning, noon and night. She was crazy on desert stuff and sheiks and all that. The chemist at the corner kept a twopenny library, and she used to go down every day for another book and say to him, ‘Haven’t you got anything hotter?’ ... He was quite surprised we didn’t have a kid in the first six months. But since she married me, she’s quite different – she never opens a book now.

Another anecdote provides an insight into the schizoid world of D.C. Thomson, a company whose weeklies mixed a profitable line in ‘stranglings, knifings, shootings, disembowellings, burials alive, hauntings, drownings and suffocations’ with a Calvinist horror of sex. Having drawn the picture of a girl with a gaping throat, an illustrator was told by his horrified editor: ‘For God’s sake boy – look at the lassie’s skirt; it’s awa above her knees!’

McAleer ducks Orwell’s anatomy of the working-class mentalité and sets himself the more modest task of testing Wilkie Collins’s pious expectation that working-class readers would ‘graduate’ over time to better things and even produce their own ‘great writers’. He himself inclines to a Leavisite pessimism, and indeed finds no upward drift in the period he surveys: the ‘unknown public’ did not move on to ‘highbrow novels and non-fiction, as Collins predicted with robust optimism’. Secondly McAleer addresses Orwell’s conviction that boys’ weeklies and other reading for the masses were tools of oppression, in line with the dystopian vision of Pornosec in 1984: ‘all fiction from the novels in the mushroom libraries downwards is censored in the interests of the ruling class. And boys’ fiction above all, the blood-and-thunder stuff which nearly every boy devours at some time or other, is sodden in the worst illusions of 1910.’

Orwell’s essay on ‘Boys’ Weeklies’ was published in Horizon in 1940, during what were for a liberal journalist the darkest (and most censored) days of the war. As with the decline from the code of Raffles to that of No Orchids for Miss Blandish, Orwell perceived the seeds of an incipient English fascism in the proles’ reading tastes (although he never quite made up his mind whether their comics brutalised or merely narcotised them). With hindsight it is clear that he was unbalanced by local events. McAleer dismembers Orwell’s ‘all fiction’ assertion. It is true, he grants, that in matters of sex a general propriety was enforced. But at its successful commercial edge, the market was consumer-driven, not controlled by malevolent Northcliffian proprietors with political agendas. His example is that of the Religious Tract Society. In founding the BOP the Society had a specific goal – to replace the penny dreadfuls (‘penny packets of poison’) with wholesome matter. The popular legend is that the BOP was a long-term bestseller. But as McAleer shows, locked into its Christian and anti-masturbation propaganda mission, the RTS weekly was almost immediately overtaken by the more market-responsive publications of the commercial publishers. By 1900, ten years after its launch, the BOP was a lame duck, subsidised by the RTS, and so it limped on for another half-century. With successful publishers, McAleer concludes, ‘the relationship was a reciprocal one governed by commercial considerations; the changing tastes of the reader were carefully monitored and accommodated within certain moral boundaries.’ McAleer points to another flaw in Orwell’s model – his assumption that the average English schoolboy was as neglected by his parents as young Eric Blair had been. ‘Editors had to tread a fine line between two markets, the positive children’s one and the negative parents’ one.’ Exciting the juvenile reader without provoking their parents was never an easy trick.

It is a limitation that McAleer’s book stops where it does: 1950 is a very dull date. The most interesting section for the general reader is that on Mills & Boon, an institution which still occupies a central place in British culture. In 1988, its proprietor claimed the ‘biggest readership in the world’. McAleer traces the way the imprint reached this peak, from its origin as the bright idea of two disaffected Methuen employees in 1908. The Mills & Boon formula is summed up by the firm’s ideologues as ‘Lubbock’s Law and the Alphaman’. The law derives from Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction (1921). Having studied this ultra-Jamesian tract, the bright young Gerald Mills and John Boon determined that ‘viewpoint’ was the main ingredient in narrative and that their romances ‘should always be written from the heroine’s point of view, in order to promote identification and increase interest and suspense’. The ‘Alphaman’ guideline is based on what the founding fathers of Mills & Boon saw as a ‘law of nature’: ‘the female of any species will always be most intensely attracted to the strongest male of the species, the alpha.’ For that reason, the Mills & Boon hero must always be an übermensch. ‘The wimp type doesn’t work,’ according to Allan Boon, a descendant of the founder: ‘Women don’t want an honest Joe.’ One will look at the books in the rack with a new respect now that one knows their origins in Henry James and Nietzsche.

The principle on which Mills & Boon runs its list is that the imprint is always greater than the author. Over the years, the firm has built up a stable of romancers several of whom (like Jean S. Macleod) have a hundred or more titles to their credit. But Mills & Boon has never sponsored a blockbuster author like Ruby M. Ayres, or Denise Robbins whose names, unlike Macleod’s, are recognised outside the genre. The founders of the firm absorbed, among much else from their period, the lessons of Henry Ford and product standardisation. The ‘stable’ principle goes together with the essentially patriarchal organisation of Mills & Boon, which has always been run from the top by (Alpha) men. These are romances written for women by women for men.

The two delivery systems which launched Mills & Boon to greatness were the tuppenny libraries in the Thirties (for which they supplied brown-jacketed hardbacks) and the cheap, bookstore-racked paperback in the post-Sixties period. Of the two, the first is associated with Mills & Boon’s golden age. In its recent paperback form the identity of the firm has been diluted by multinational merger. Its products are nowadays almost indistinguishable from those of its rivals. Morally, Mills & Boon has always walked a fine line. Ostensibly they project a wholesome image, and in 1945 could describe themselves as ‘missionaries who preach the reading habit’. Adultery, pre-marital intercourse, divorce and (by implication) unmissionary positions have always been off-limits. McAleer nonetheless detects a pervasive ‘undercurrent of quasi-feminism’ and a robustness in dealing with the heroine’s moral dilemma which goes beyond romantic stereotype. McAleer contrasts the Mills & Boon product with the iron-knickered Barbara Cartland and her crusade – extended over five hundred novels – against the horrific consequences of pre-marital sex. Cartland is deficient in what McAleer discerns as the ‘light, even witty, touch’ of the best Mills & Boon authors when it comes to fumble, grope and smooch. ‘My people are not allowed to be touched,’ the Queen of Romance declares. It is an order.

McAleer’s book is a model of what publishing history should be – sober, broadly comparative, solidly researched, illuminating. It is, however, rather uncomfortable to read and so coldly objective in tone that one sometimes feels the author is examining a species other than his own. In part, this can be attributed to the remote finishing point; in part, to the fact that as an American McAleer has no first-hand recollection of the cultural traditions he analyses. Intuition and personal experience suggest that British reading habits have always been less compartmentally neat than the publishing historians would like. Take Peter Mann’s startling discovery, made some twenty years ago, that the main patrons of Mills & Boon were university-educated women, consciously slumming. This was in line with an almost exactly simultaneous finding by a Presidential commission in America that the principal purchasers of hard pornography were not the degenerate sleaze-hounds of popular stereotype but middle-class, middle-aged, married, white businessmen.

One of the most perplexing – and generally gratifying – aspects of contemporary publishing in Britain is the boom in cheap, paperback ‘classic’ fiction. Jane Austen, the Brontës, Thomas Hardy and Dickens sell (in World’s Classics and Penguin Classics editions alone) up to fifty thousand copies a year of their most popular works in volumes costing £5 or less (more in the upmarket Everyman line). Cumulative sales are incalculably large. Thackeray currently sells twice as many copies a year of Vanity Fair as he did at any point during his lifetime. There are so many paperback editions of so many Trollope titles that it is a wonder we are not knee-deep in them. Obviously much of this output is sopped up by traditional middle-class readers, many prematurely ‘retired’, and by rising generations of schoolchildren and students entering adult literacy. But a good proportion must also be reaching self-improving readers.

One of the weaknesses of the Orwellian model is its assumption that readers remain true to their class patterns all their lives. Many readers who like to think of themselves as cultivated will, I suspect, have followed the same sort of trajectory as I did: Film Fun at the dawn of literacy, Hotspur, Wizard and W.E. Johns in the run up to 11-plus, horror comics at 12, Rider Haggard and Dennis Wheatley in early adolescence, Hank Jansen and SF in late adolescence and convergence with the canon in the sixth form. At any point, such a reader will be ‘sodden’ in reactionary or unhealthy ideology. But the immersion is temporary and the residue less toxic than Orwell allowed. Literacy is not something that can be mechanically programmed, and in a mature democracy its flowering requires the same kinds of freedom to deviate as does sexuality. One of the truly offensive assumptions of the generally crazed National Curriculum is its contention that reading through life progresses in a straight line: that the route to Middlemarch starts from Winnie the Pooh with an intermediate stop at Treasure Island. It would make more sense to give young readers vouchers redeemable for anything from Nintendo Weekly to American Psycho.

In 1983 Jackie Collins had a mega-hit with Hollywood Wives, by whose standards all her subsequent bestsellers have been rather anaemic performers. American Star returns to Sin City. Nick Angel, a ‘cult superstar’ and Alphaman extraordinaire who has ‘laid every fuckable woman in Hollywood’, awakes on his 35th birthday. He has a hangover; his live-in girlfriend Honey and ‘Teresa, his faithful karate champion assistant’, do not please. Neither does the image reflected in his ‘steel and glass high-tech bathroom’. He is still irresistibly handsome, of course, but there are ‘ten pounds of excess flesh, bloodshot eyes, and an altogether dissipated demeanour’. The word goes down to his ‘team of driver/bodyguards’: ‘Get out the Ferrari. No driver. And call the airport, tell them to have my plane ready, I’m taking it up.’ Will Nick, unable to face life after 35, end it, or will he, somehow, be reunited with his one true love, Lauren, in a small log cabin in Canada? Before the question can be answered the whole of his rags to riches life story flashes (well, lumbers) in front of our eyes.

Jackie Collins owes everything authorial to Jacqueline Susann (Nick Angel, for instance, is a reincarnation of Robin Stone in The Love Machine, right down to the ‘waking with a hangover’ routine). Like Susann, Collins is the main component of her own fiction: the glamorous, beautiful, male-fantasy-inducing author who (if we are mean enough to calculate) must be well over fifty but doesn’t look a day older than sister Joan. The portrait on the back cover is a remarkable work of art. American Star trades, in the manner of glamour romance, on the privileged insider status of the author: ‘Jackie Collins lives in Los Angeles’ is all we get by way of author profile (another Jackie Collins used to live in London, one recalls). But for all her resident’s status, the knowingness about America rings rather hollow at times. One of the more endearing aspects of Susann’s fiction were the regular glimpses of the author’s underlying naivety. It was a very profound naivety in some crucial areas. In the first draft of Once is Not Enough, for example, she went into some detail about how, after a ‘hand job’, her heroine would save her partner’s semen and store it in the fridge for use as a facial cream (‘it’s loaded with hormones’). Her editor-cum-ghost-writer, Jim Landis, was aghast to discover that Susann assumed that one of her studs could produce enough ‘to fill a milk carton’. When the physiological improbability was pointed out it was, as her biographer notes, ‘evidently news to Jackie’.

Jackie Collins doesn’t make any errors of this kind. Indeed, she is formidably expert on facial creams and other cosmetics (there are enough brand-named perfumes in American Star to get it into the Guinness Book of Records). But she is profoundly vague about the details of growing up a young man in small-town America. The best she can manage is a kind of low-budget film-set illusionism. She can even be a bit vague about her hometown. At one point she has Nick and his true love Lauren visit ‘Disneyland, Universal City and Magic Mountain all in one day’. This is a blooper almost in the pint-of-semen class. Disneyland in Anaheim is some ninety miles from Six Flags Magic Mountain and Universal Studios is located in the middle of a 24-hour LA traffic-jam. Even in Nick’s Ferrari, and allowing only a twenty-minute stop in each place, it can’t be done starting from Hollywood, unless, of course, they were to use the private plane and parachute down onto the magic kingdoms.

Collins’s book is prefaced by what must be a first of its kind – a health warning. ‘While American Star contains descriptions of unprotected sex appropriate to the period in which the story is set, both the author and the publisher want to emphasis the importance of practising safe sex and the use of condoms in real life. Play it safe! Do not play with your life!’ Since Nick’s last unprotected sex takes place in December 1992, the ‘appropriate to the period’ apology is unconvincing and suggests a last-minute loss of nerve. But what is most interesting is Collins’s tacit acceptance of responsibility. Novels like American Star, she concedes, do encourage promiscuity. Barbara Cartland, it seems, has been right all along.