Colin Watson was evidently a retiring sort of man. In an earlier post (in 2004) about Watson's own marvellous crime novels, the Flaxborough series, I said this:
Biographical details about Watson are sparse; the books themselves seldom tell us much about the author. But he seems to have been born in 1920, and he worked as a journalist. He produced the first of twelve crime novels (plus one other) in 1958; the last book appeared in 1982. And he died far too young in 1983. Along the way (1967) he picked up a Crime Writers Association silver-dagger award for the quality of his output.Snobbery with Violence reveals the depth of his reading in the crime-fiction genre, and it also reveals how carefully he thought about the craft of popular, commercial fiction.
Later editions of the book, e.g. the 1987 Methuen paperback, carry an introduction from H.R.F. Keating, in which he pays tribute to Watson's sagacity, and to his originality. It was Watson, for instance, who coined the term 'Mayhem Parva' to describe the Agatha Christie school of detective fiction, which takes place, as often as not, in English villages. (Though the phrase 'snobbery with violence' was coined by Alan Bennett, who is credited with the quote in the prelims.)
Watson's subject is basically the English crime-fiction writers of the first half of the twentieth century, with a few excursions before and after. And in this brief survey of the book I want to do two things. First, I would ask you to note that, using crime fiction as his source material, Watson paints a picture of English society, particularly in the years between the two world wars, which is rather different from that offered by many social historians. And it is not, I'm afraid, a very attractive picture.
And second, I want to tell you what Watson has to say about how writers become enormously successful, in terms of attracting vast numbers of readers and selling lots of books, because that is probably the only part of the book which is likely to be of more than passing interest to most readers of this blog.
Having set the scene, by defining the area of fiction which he is going to describe, Watson proceeds to discuss (chiefly, though not exclusively) the work of 'Sapper' (Lieutenant-Colonel H.C. McNeile), Edgar Wallace, E. Phillips Oppenheim, Sax Rohmer, Dorothy L. Sayers, Sidney Horler, Agatha Christie, Leslie Charteris, and, at the end, Ian Fleming.
Some of these names, e.g. Sidney Horler, are now forgotten, but all, in their day, were massively popular. Horler wrote a hundred novels which sold, literally, in millions overall. Nearly all the writers named were extraordinarily prolific. E. Phillips Oppenheim is said to have published 13 million words. Edgar Wallace wrote so many books that a cartoon of the time had a newsvendor asking a customer, 'Seen the midday Wallace, sir?'
By analysing the work of these authors, Watson shows us the temper of the times. The English were, of course, snobbish. They were also, it is tempting to put first, anti-semitic. But the truth is, they were anti anything remotely foreign. Olive oil was unknown outside a few specialist shops in big cities. Sax Rohmer, with his villain Fu Manchu, built a career on the English dislike of nasty little yellow men, who were thought to be bent on conquering the world. In short, foreign was normally synonymous with criminal.
Some people were considered so unpleasant that they were even outside the rules of fair play. Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy Sayers's famous detective, casually listed among the classes whom one need not trouble to treat fairly the following: 'liars and halfwits and prostitutes and dagoes.' Dago, Watson explains, being a generic term for all non-British persons and particularly those of swarthy complexion.
It's worth noting, in passing, how cleverly Agatha Christie dealt with these prejudices in creating Hercule Poirot. He, you will recall, was a Belgian, from 'gallant little Belgium' of first world war fame. A man from a nation for whom half the young men of England had died was perhaps, worthy of some respect, even if he was decidedly odd.
Other deeply suspicious characteristics included long hair, which was a sign of 'artiness', and a high forehead: indicative of intellectualism, which was instinctively considered subversive. Both of these symptoms were frequently exhibited by murderers, or, at the very least, leading suspects.
It may also come as something of a surprise to learn, or, in the case of older readers, be reminded of just how deep were the class divides in those days. There were the wealthy aristocrats, tiny in number but much written about, who owned a high proportion of the nation's wealth; there was the working class, which largely knew its place and had little desire to be, and little expectation of ever being, anything other than working class; and in between was the middle class, which did most of the reading.
All in all, Watson provides a healthy reminder that the good old days actually didn't have much to recommend them. We learn, for instance, that in 1926, nearly half the schoolchildren on Tyneside still went to school barefoot. Ignorance of sex was widespread, and readers didn't want any of it in their books, thank you very much.
Times were hard. When James Agate advertised for a chauffeur in 1932, he got 211 replies, mostly from men desperate for any kind of work. He interviewed 11 before finding a man who could drive.
The second major theme of Snobbery with Violence is a consideration of how a writer, in any given society, comes to be popular. And, as a corollary to that, Watson considers whether it is possible for a writer somehow to guarantee that he becomes popular.
Watson's answers to these questions are slightly depressing. He concludes that the really popular writers, in any given age and community, are those whose work somehow reflects all the key prejudices of the day. Of Oppenheim, one critic rightly said that there was within him 'a wide streak of mediocrity.'
A popular work cannot contain anything major which suggests that society should be other than what it is. Furthermore, says Watson, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, coldbloodedly to manufacture, for the sake of money or fame, fiction which deliberately meets these criteria. 'The public is remarkably sensitive,' he says , 'to tongue-in-cheek attitudes; it recognises and rejects every attempt to write down by an author who does not himself share the popular ideas he pretends to approve.' Success, Watson adds, strides with sincerity.
A sense of humour was normally also a fatal disqualification from the world of bestsellerdom. It was unwise to cast slurs upon religion.
The successful writer, Watson believes, as a result of his survey, is the writer who naturally shares, and genuinely believes in, all the key values of his audience. What readers wanted, at least in the first half of the twentieth century, was reassurance: reassurance that law and order would be triumphant; that the world was not about to be subject to violent change; that things, by and large, were all right as they were.
In this world, originality on the part of writers was not a requirement for success. Watson points out that even the work of Ian Fleming was 'astonishingly derivative', with many of Bond's enemies, such as Dr No, closely matching the Fu Manchus of an earlier time. Even some of Q's gadgets had already been invented by Edgar Wallace.
Snobbery with Violence is, I suggest, essential reading for anyone who hopes to succeed as a crime writer, even though it deals with writers who are now long gone. There is much in this book which, for the crime writer, is timeless. It is also a considerable catalyst to thought for anyone, writer, agent, or publisher, who is scratching his head and wondering how to increase sales.