Sunday, 22 April 2012

What kind of novels - if any - do the uneducated read these days?

Like many Scottish libraries in the early days, The Dunfermline Tradesmen’s Library didn’t stock fiction when it was founded in 1808, but had to change its policies when it discovered that weavers were banding together to buy Walter Scott novels to pass around among themselves. When Henry Mayhew investigated the bookstalls of London in the mid-19th Century, he discovered that the main customers were working men, and that among their favourite books were The Vicar of Wakefield, Tom Jones, Robinson Crusoe and Pilgrim’s Progress.

I doubt if similar titles crop up on working class reading lists these days – but, then, what does?

My second job back in the 1970s was with New English Library, an American-owned publishing company, which made most of its money out of paperback genres which appealed to relatively uneducated  readers, including horror, westerns, “skinhead” books (alongside blockbusters from the likes of Harold Robbins and Stephen King). I often wondered who bought the genre books - and was surprised to discover while was working there that a cousin of mine was a huge fan of the Edge western series (and, yes, I bunged him a few freebies).

These genre novels were usually around 120 pages long and often expertly cranked out at breakneck speed - Terry Harknett, the charming ex-journalist who wrote the Edge and Jubal Cade gunslinger series, and a host of others, would take just two weeks to produce a novel, after which he’d have a fortnight off to enjoy life in the isolated house in Cornwall his popularity had brought him. Every month, our biggest titles would be sold into W.H. Smith and John Menzies (the big beasts of the paperback jungle in those days), while our sales reps would battle with their counterparts from the likes of Corgi, Sphere and Futura, flogging our whole list – and especially the genre titles – into thousands of small outlets around the country, where they would sell in quantities unimaginable these days (my first horror novel - which took me a lot longer than a fortnight to produce - sold 100,000 copies in the UK without coming within sniffing range of a bestseller list: unfortunately the cover price was 95p and I was on a miserly 4% royalty rate!).

Who was buying all those books? Mainly lower middle-class and working class readers, I suspect. They weren't in the least challenging, and would have taken even slow readers no more than two hours to get through. When video-players appeared on the market, this sort of genre fiction practically sank without trace, leaving behind a handful of big names who’d made it out of the genre ghetto into the mainstream.

Those genres which survived did so by moving upmarket to appeal to middle-class readers and college kids rather than manual workers – chick-lit is an upmarket version of Mills and Boon romance, while, instead of he-man 1970s crime series such as The Executioner and The Destroyer, we have more middle-class female-oriented fare from Henning Mankel and Stieg Larsson, and blood-spattered horror nasties have morphed into romantic vampire novels for girlies. With the invention of the video-cassette, gun-toting musclemen, teen-ripping demons and space-opera heroes pretty much disappeared from bookshelves and emigrated to the Big Screen, and from there onto our TV sets - where they've remained.

If I’m a working class bloke, why would I buy a cheap, sensational novel when I can watch sport on Sky or play video games or consume online porn or pick up the latest Vin Diesel DVD - or a Rom-Com movie instead of a Mills & Boon for wives, girl-friends and single mothers, I presume?

But that still begs the question – if I’m not reading an Edge Western or a Guy N Smith horror novel (The Sucking Pit, anyone?) – what exactly, apart from the Sports pages of the Sun on Sunday or a lad’s mag, am I reading? And where would I buy it? Waterstone's is infintely better than any big 1970s bookstore chain , and WH Smith appears to stock a much better class of book than it did back then - but they both strike me as decidedly middle-class outlets. Many of the small multi-purpose retail outlets that used to stock fiction for the uneducated thirty years ago don't seem to stock any books at all these days.

Perhaps the working classes now read the same novels as the middle-classes. It would be nice to think so, but I suspect the uneducated don't read printed fiction at all these days. I find that depressing, and I'm not sure why: I suppose it's because reading a book or a short story in a magazine - no matter how worthless either might be in terms of literary quality - requires the sort of mental effort that watching a Steven Seagal film evidently doesn't.


  1. "I say my good man", you can hardly say, walking up to the nearest uncouth person, "what if anything do you and your nearest and dearest read?".

    With regard to the lack of bricks and mortar outlets, is this perhaps one place where Kindles come into their own?

    The separation between the classes is always fascinating. I am currently ploughing my way through Robin Harris's history of the Conservatives. Obviously the leaders of the Tory party in the nineteenth century weren't exactly on first-name terms with any members of the lower orders. What is staggering, if Harris is to be believed, is that they were so aristocratic that they'd never met anyone middle class either.

    Salisbury found Queen Victoria a very homely woman and assumed that the middle classes probably thought more or less like her.

    The two of them agreed after long debate, apparently, that Gladstone must be clinically insane.

  2. By the way, you don't think the booksellers were having Mayhew on, by any chance, do you?

  3. I went into WH Smith a couple of days ago [Dumfries] to pick up my monthly supply of Daim bars and had a flick through their books. Cookery, Katie Price and her ex-Cypriot husband and various other people "off the telly". Large stacks of a new novel by Irvine Welsh ["Trainspotting"]; Private Eye says that if you familiar with the F-word you have already read 30% of the novel.A sad state.