Steve Holland's The Mushroom Jungle (published by Zardoz Books) is not a new book; it was first published in 1993. It tells the story of an extraordinary period in British publishing -- a period of about ten years during which a few enterprising businessmen, with no previous background in publishing, were able to supply cheap paperback books to working-class readers and make a modest profit.
During the second world war, paper for books was in short supply, but there were plenty of people who wanted to read. This did not go unnoticed. And in particular there was a whole class of readers who were not considered at all by the traditional British publishers. For want of a better term we will call these people working-class readers.
Once the war was ended, in 1945, a number of businessmen thought that it ought to be possible to exploit this unsatisfied demand. For the most part, the 'publishers' who operated in this 'mushroom jungle' were not publishers in the usual sense of the term. They were very ordinary men, who might otherwise have been taxi-drivers or greengrocers, but they recognised a commercial opportunity when they saw one, and they were ready to take it. Often they had little or no capital, and they lived from week to week. Nobody got rich.
The books which these new publishers issued were nearly all originals. They were usually between 112 and 128 pages in length, and contained approximately 40,000 words. The paper on which the books were printed was flimsy and cheap, and the books sold chiefly on the strength of their garish covers. They were sold mostly through newsagents and hardly ever through the normal book-trade channels; they were bought, read, and passed from hand to hand in factories and shops, until, before long, they simply fell to pieces.
As for the writers who supplied the books… Well, they too were very ordinary men. Often they were journalists who had served for four or five years in the military and had then discovered, on their return home, that there were no jobs to go to. So they sat down and they hammered out a novel of, say, 40,000 words, in a week or so. Ten days at the most. If they did that, week in and week out, they could just about make a living wage.
One writer used to work from 4 a.m. until noon, during which time he would neither eat nor drink. Another writer sold 170 stories, of which half were between 20,000 and 65,000 words. His output peaked at 12,000 words in one day; in that same week he wrote 55,000 words of gangster fiction in five days.
All in all, the books which were produced in this way were hardly noticed by the traditional book trade, and were certainly never reviewed. Not surprisingly, given the speed at which they were written, these paperback originals are generally reckoned (by modern critics) to be some of the feeblest and least convincing fiction ever to appear in print. But they were read. People bought them by the hundred thousand, because they were cheap and because they met the demand for dramatic and exciting stories.
Westerns and gangster novels set in the Bronx were cheerfully written by Englishmen who had never been any further west than Bristol. Science fiction and romances were also favourites.
Often the covers, if nothing else, gave promise of saucy stories within, but by modern standards there was little in the way of sex scenes. As was usual in those far-off days, the man took the girl off to some hotel or other, closed the door and… a line of dots led us to the next morning.
In 1950, paper supplies were deregulated, which fuelled a further boom in this market, a market which was so far below the notice of serious book people that it went almost wholly unremarked.
But in the end, of course (by about the mid 1950s), the mini-boom in down-market pulp fiction inevitably ground to a halt. It was killed by a number of factors. These were, in no particular order: the ending of a post-war ban which had prevented American publishers from exporting fiction to the UK; a printer’s strike, which deprived the paperback publishers of income; and the widespread prosecution of many of the books on the grounds of ‘obscenity’ – though in reality, of course, all the books were models of restraint when compared with what appears in print today. I shall say more about this latter development tomorrow.
This is the story which Steve Holland tells, and he tells it remarkably well. All in all, he has produced a fascinating account of a period in publishing history which will never be repeated. His book is marred somewhat by numerous typos, but it holds the attention nevertheless. And it provides plenty of food for thought for those writers who are wondering what it is that holds readers to the page. Hint: it ain’t anything that they can teach you at the University of Iowa.