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Bestsellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900
Clive Bloom
Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002.
£14.99, 300 pages, ISBN 0-333-68743-4 (paperback).
£45.00, 300 pages, ISBN 0-333-68742-6 (hardback).

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

Clive Bloom is Professor of English and American Studies at Middlesex University. He has edited and written a great number of books, among which notoriously Literature, Politics and Intellectual Crisis in Britain Today (2000), Cult Fiction: Popular Reading and Pulp Theory (1996, is this the same book as Cult Fiction: The Popular Reading Cultures of America and Britain and Cult Fiction: Popular Reading in America and Britain?), and American Drama (1995). His new book, Violent London: 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts should be released in April 2003. Reading Bestsellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900 I felt it could function as a sort of companion piece to Jane Rogers's Good Fiction Guide (reviewed in Cercles). First it must be made clear that this book deals with bestsellers in the U.K. Although it may be of great interest to anyone who reads novels in English on the planet (and even more to anyone who teaches novels in English), it reflects the tastes and buying habits of the British public only.

In Chapter One, "Origins, Problems and Philosophy of the Bestseller," Bloom looks back at the nineteenth-century reading and buying patterns of the public and at the way they evolved until the fiction business became gradually "respectable" in the twentieth century (there was a time when bestselling authors were desperate to remain anonymous). He also starts addressing the "cult of the author," from Marie Corelli to Stephen King, "the biggest selling American writer of all time," whom he fittingly mentions as early as page 3. Bloom then proceeds to justify his choices, the way one must when writing this type of book. Fiction is his object of study—not cookery books or self-help manuals which often reach colossal sales figures. Besides, he examines adult fiction, even though he is bound to feature crossover authors such as J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman (I am an unashamed avid reader of the Harry Potter and Lyra Belacqua books myself). I am not so sure about his period, though, 1900 to the present. I myself would have opted for 1901 to 2000, i.e. the twentieth century; but that is a mere detail. His book, if he says so himself, is "an archeology of a deeply literate age." He contends and I agree: "We live, despite fears about illiteracy, in the age of reading when books are more freely available and far cheaper than at any other time, and where their disposability has only increased their proliferation." (5) Yes, I know this is hard to imagine when you teach, say, Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood (1952), and you realize that at the second session some of your students still haven't read it, let alone read The Violent Bear It Away (1960) as you recommended—and you want to change jobs. Bloom is also right to point out that movies sometimes help sell books; all it takes is the mention "now an oscar-nominated motion picture starring so-and-so" or something of the sort on the cover of the movie tie-in edition, with a photograph of the star. I don't see anything wrong with the phenomenon myself, if it can make my young first cousin suddenly devour Tolkien whereas he had never read a novel in his life…

Bloom's other justifications are all convincing. He offers some sociological observations, such as the way gender and class regulate reading, which are extremely relevant and interesting. He has some difficulty with the definition of "popular," but then who hasn't? He does establish, however, that "at the end of the twentieth century the two leading popular genres were the same as at its beginning and still commanded the greatest sales: detective fiction and women's romance." (13) Besides, he warns: "Popular genres do not, however, have equal status. Some are considered more serious than others (which often means less 'female' or less 'juvenile')." (14) To illustrate his various points, he quotes from Ian Fleming, Jackie Collins and Barbara Cartland. I'm always telling my students that they should read at least one Jackie Collins (Hollywood Wives, maybe) and one Barbara Cartland in their lives—they can always borrow a copy from their sister-in-law; just so they can be acquainted with the huge cultural phenomena these women constitute. Looking at worldwide figures, they are up there in the top ten along with the Bible and Madonna's Sex (1992). Their trademark appearances are equally interesting. With her pink extravaganzas Cartland was to romance what Liberace was to music. As for Jackie Collins, only her actress sister Joan can compete (she has also produced a handful of books) for Superbitch status (I mean that as a compliment needless to say), constantly hovering at the frontier between Camp and kitsch. Of such elements author cults are also composed. To conclude this chapter, Bloom asks questions like: "Can popular literature (one supposedly without self-awareness) be the only cynical literature? Is the 'unthinking' sentimentalism of popular fiction the only site of literary kitsch?" (27) The answers are, of course, no. And Bloom does well to add the adverb "supposedly". In this postmodern age, such distinctions are often totally irrelevant anyway, aren't they?

Chapter Two is entitled "How the British Read." It addresses literacy levels, literacy in practice, the influences of cinema, television and radio, the library system, censorship, publishing, and the market. Bloom mentions in passing a fascinating literary curiosity: "[…] the pulp paperback found a new male market when the supply of American pulp magazines dried up during World War Two. British writers armed with maps of Los Angeles and a line of gangster patois were soon filling the gap that had been left […]." (64) This practice continues to this day, naturally, and many a British novelist is often mistaken for an American (see Graham Masterton). The same goes for actors. It is a question of knowing on which side one's bread is buttered, I suppose, added to the attraction for the new world.

Chapter Three, "Genre: History and Form," begins with a tremendous quotation I cannot refrain from stealing:

When I first came across Captain Corelli's Mandolin, I was walking down the Uxbridge Road in tears. As soon as I'd finished, I realized I had just read B-movie twaddle. Louis de Bernières [the author] managed to punch every button. It was let's have nice Mediterranean peasants, nasty Nazis, positive gay characters and two people who aren't allowed to shag for 500 pages. It's Barbara Cartland and I bought it. You want to throw it across the room with a smile of admiration on your face.
James Hawes (85)

The italics are mine. Let s/he who has never felt exactly like that cast the first stone. On one or two occasions Bloom repeats statements he has made in Chapter One but in a perfectly forgivable way. I found his comments upon genre stability and the conservatism of much writing engrossing. He has looked at the labels on shelves in bookshops and makes astute observations, although he does not seem to be quite as dismayed as I am by them. Some writers are forced into categories that pigeonhole them. "Most notable among such writers was Catherine Cookson, who insisted she was a historical novelist (i.e. serious), not a women's romance writer (i.e. frivolous), although in most bookshops her work was shelved under 'romance'." (87) Perhaps the length of some of the quotes in this chapter is not entirely justified, although they are always extremely representative. Bloom is stronger on Mills and Boon than on the Gothic (although he has written excellently about it elsewhere), and he addresses cult fiction too quickly, in my opinion—maybe because he knows the reader can go back to his book Cult Fiction: Popular Reading and Pulp Theory.

Chapter Four, "Best-selling Authors Since 1900," is the most important part of the book, in every sense of the adjective. After three pages of introduction, Bloom lists writers alphabetically, with a few titles and a short text for each one. My regret here is that he contented himself with the birth and death years. It would not have occupied that much more space if he had systematically given the full dates and places of birth, along with the nationalities in the headings. As it is, some writers are given a birthplace in the text, others aren't. And we are supposed to guess their nationality, which may be obvious in the majority of case, but not all. It would have been helpful to be able to spot the proportion of American authors at a glance, for instance. The way one does, I looked first at the entries on all the writers I was familiar with (many of whom I read in my teens and not since): Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, J. B. Priestley, P. G. Wodehouse, James Hadley Chase, Peter Cheyney, A. J. Cronin, Daphne du Maurier, W. Somerset Maugham, Margaret Mitchell, George Orwell, Mickey Spillane and J. R. R. Tolkien for the first three periods distinguished by Bloom; Arthur C. Clarke, Jackie Collins, Ian Fleming, Arthur Haley, Joseph Heller, D. H. Lawrence, Michael Moorcock, Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann for the fourth period; and Barbara Cartland, Michael Crichton, Alex Garland, John Grisham, Thomas Harris, James Herbert, P. D. James, Stephen King, Judith Krantz, Robert Ludlum, Colleen McCullough, Ruth Rendell, Irvine Welsh, etc. for the last period. It is amusing to note which of the lot are taught at universities around the globe today. One also wonders at the surprising quantity of Science Fiction. Bloom's data-collecting methods are unquestionably sound, even though the difficulty increases as you go back in time; and I subscribe to most of the opinions expressed in the texts, even though I found conspicuous the absence of some titles in the selections after the headings. The appendixes are uneven. That said, Bestsellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900 is invaluable for university staff, students, and the general reading public (of twentieth-century fiction).


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