Bestsellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900 (2002) by Clive Bloom
In many respects, Clive Bloom’s ‘Bestsellers’ is an excellent book that I would recommend to anyone with an interest in the history of publishing, reading, and the emergence of ‘the bestseller’ in the twentieth century. Happily for me, Bloom also chooses some of my favourite authors (P.G. Wodehouse, George MacDonald Fraser, John Buchan, Agatha Christie) to illustrate his points.
Bloom tracks the development of ‘the bestseller’ alongside increasing literacy levels in Britain, showing how new literature classifications emerged (high-brow and low-brow) to keep class distinctions alive in literature (previously the lower classes had been illiterate). Bloom exposes ‘literary fiction’ as (arguably) little more than snobbery. ‘Serious literature, made purposefully unfathomable and dire, ensure that it remains the province of an expensively-educated elite. As Bloom says:
No use of literary language can claim, ab initio, an aesthetic principle that is superior per se and no such claim can avoid the acrid whiff of moral, class and personal superiority. What emerges is a test of psychic health and moral eugenics rather than literary judgement. What is left is condemnation dressed as artistic judgement, and in each condemnation the unwashed smell of the popular creeps through.
This is top stuff!
As a newcomer to Britain, I was surprised (usually bemused, but sometimes shocked) to find class distinction’ still pervades British life. Almost everything one does in Britain – where you shop, what you wear, eat and drink, how you speak, the paper you read – mark you out for approval or condemnation. I was fascinated to understand how class distinction has also been transposed to the world of literature classification and genre.
It was a freeing revelation for me as a reader. Discovering that literary elitism is rooted in class snobbery adds to my pleasure in snubbing pretentious ‘must read lists’ and reading what I enjoy. And for the same reasons, I now feel guilty for having looked down on romance fiction and ‘chick-lit’. Bloom shows (whether he intended to or not) that disparaging these genres is effectively disparaging working and middle-class women. I have vowed to do this no longer!
As you see, I found Clive Bloom’s Bestsellers well worth reading and reflecting on, but there was one fly in the ointment that must be commented on. In the second half of the book, Bloom lists the best-selling authors of the twentieth century, along with a precis of their life and work. In his discussion of the author P.G. Wodehouse, Bloom states Wodehouse ‘broadcast for the Nazis’, but after a time ‘the public seemed to accept him’ again. To present this episode in Wodehouse’s life in such a way does great disservice to the author – and is no credit to Bloom either.
There has been a wealth of material written on the subject of Wodehouse’s wartime broadcasts, particularly since the relevant war office archives were released*. Apologies to long-time readers and fans for reviving the matter again here, but I think it’s worth reiterating once more: repeated researchers and biographers have found, as did MI5, that Wodehouse was not a Nazi sympathiser or collaborator.
Wodehouse was living in France at the outbreak of WWII, and spent part of the war in a German prison camp. After his release, he was approached by a former Hollywood acquaintance to record some humorous broadcasts to America. There was nothing pro-German in the content of the broadcasts, which gently mocked the Nazis in the same comic style for which Wodehouse is so admired. The broadcasts were also in keeping with a British tradition for humour in the face of adversity, exemplified during the previous war by The Wipers Times (which was well received in Britain).
Few people in Britain heard the broadcasts. The denunciation of Wodehouse that followed was an orchestrated response, led by The Daily Mirror columnist William Connor (pen name ‘Cassandra’). The British public, who hadn’t heard the broadcasts for themselves, accepted ‘Cassandra’ at his word. Wodehouse’s error was in broadcasting humour from Germany at such a time. His supporters, like Orwell, have suggested Wodehouse was politically naive. He was certainly no Nazi. Before the war, Wodehouse famously lampooned influential British fascist Oswald Mosley, in the character of Roderick Spode (in The Code of the Woosters, 1938). Wodehouse’s Spode was a ridiculous bully, amateur dictator and leader of the ‘black shorts':
The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”
Wodehouse’s anti-fascist credentials stand up to scrutiny far better than the newspaper responsible for denouncing him. The Daily Mirror had actively supported Mosely’s Blackshirts under Lord Rothermere, who counted Hitler and Mussolini as personal friends. The paper was presumably disinclined to write columns of scathing bile about itself, and the Wodehouse story must have seemed like a gift.
When Wodehouse made the broadcasts, he had just been released from a long period of internment where he had been isolated from the events of the war. Much had changed during that time – including the public mood in Britain. He had no cause to suspect that a gently amusing, stiff-upper-lip account of his own capture and imprisonment would be received so badly. Wodehouse intended no harm in broadcasting, and was no harm was caused – apart from the lasting damage to his own reputation.
Under such circumstances it has been easy for Wodehouse readers to not only forgive (as Bloom indicates), but to also feel aggrieved when we encounter examples which perpetuate mistaken beliefs that Wodehouse was in any way connected with Nazis or their ideology. It was disappointing to find in Bloom’s otherwise excellent book.
Don’t let this put you off reading Bestsellers by Clive Bloom. It’s a terrific book. But I think it’s important that we continue to put the record straight.
*For more on Wodehouse’s wartime broadcasts, try Ian Sproat’s (1981) ‘Wodehouse at War’ and Robert McCrum’s (2004) Wodehouse: A Life. You can also read the fulltext of the broadcasts online.
(c) Copyright. My original writing is are subject to copyright. You are welcome to quote, with permission, acknowledging me as the author. This review was originally post at my book review blog, Honorias Notebook, which has been decommissioned.