Thursday, January 11, 2007

Colin Watson: Snobbery with Violence

I have been re-reading Colin Watson's Snobbery with Violence. This is subtitled 'English crime stories and their audience'. It was first published in 1971, and I originally read it at about that time, but it has been worth going through it again.

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.


Andrew O'Hara said...

Amazing how thinking changes in 35 years. And doesn't.

Dobby said...

Amazing how politics changes and then doesn't. The part about 200 people turning up for a driving job with only a few actually being able to drive reminded me of the mid 80's under Thatcher. Hundreds of people turning up to be interviewed for a job that today only a Polish immigrant would do...

I can remember turning up at the job centre to find the job boards had been replaced by smaller ones. I guess it was so us lower class working chavs wouldn't notice that there were less jobs available.

I love Britton, but the country within, the country where politicians get to be where they are, based on family and wealth, rather than (in Germany) ability and brains is saddening.

There are of course exceptions such as Brown, Blair and Ken Livingstone... But people like Boris bad-hair and David Say-anything-for-a-vote Cameroon prove the theory with clarity.

I believe that Britton and the world has changed only marginally since the 30’s. Many of the same problems are still with us, kids in the UK still don’t get a good education and children in Africa still starve to death…

Paul Perry said...

I'm not sure about Blair, Dobby! I remember when Blair was one of the three contenders for Labour leadership and Auberon Waugh satirically said he'd be a shoo-in, because he was the only one with a public school background.
But I must say, I still enjoy the old green Penguins. A shame nobody writes like Pamela Branch today.

John Baker said...

Thanks for this article. I don't know the book but will have a look at it now you've brought it to our attention.
I don't think England is as class-ridden or prejudiced as it was in the first half of the 20th century, but these things can always be revived, unfortunately.
The idea that a best-seller can only pander to the lowest common denominator is still interesting, though these days that descriptor applies more to television than to novels.

francis ellen said...

"children in Africa still starve to death…"

Not if we bomb them first.

Blair went to one of the top schools in the country and if he has ability beyond talking shit it's in the ignoring responsibility for hundreds of thousands of deaths of innocent people department.

Like most politicians he is a monster and until we find a way to grab back our democracy we will suffer only monsters to lead us.

Democracy is failing very badly. (and shame on anyone who voted for him last time - the evidence was there for all to see).

We must create an abstaintion vote with meaning. We have to stop murdering the poor of this planet.

And yes, the UK's class system is thriving; it is getting stronger not weaker.

Major_Street said...

Watson's reading from the period strikes me more as highly selective than deep.

Mike said...

Interesting that Wilson doesn't include Dornford Yates - a master of snobbery, xenophobia and anti-semetism and yet a good read despite that.

I don't agree with that 'mediocrity' comment on Oppenheim. He had a lightness of touch and humour that I would rate higher than Wallace's heavy-handed brutality.

Peter said...

I'm now even more a fan of Watson's than I was five minutes ago. I've just posted a comment about my first Watson, I'm about to finish my second, and I've just bought my third.

Your comments shed light on that most salient of Flaxborough traits: traditional English settings, sharper views that was common then of English class prejudice, and occasional touches of the sexual vulgarity that the Golden Agers covered up.

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for your sharp review. Since I'm trying to get a book published, I read Watson's book every few years to remind myself of what the publishing world is (and probably generally always has been) like. Watson's so wonderfully sane. I wish he was still around to take his scalpel to the Dan Browns and the Jodi Picoults.

RHR said...

I've read every Peter Wimsey story and I don't remember the saying about prostitutes and dagoes. Can anyone give me the source?

louiseculmer said...

Don't think watson knew much about agatha christie. if he did, he would know that foreigners in her books are very often viewed positively - in seven dials mystery for instance the sinister foreigners turn out to be the good guys, while some of the clean cut young english people are the villains. jews may also be good characters as in Peril at end house for example, and in a Christie novel ANYONE may be the murderer - that is what makes them interesting. And there is a lot of humour in her books. And change is not ignored, on the contrary lack of change may be viewed with scepticism - in at bertram's hotel for example, Miss marple realises there is something dodgy about the hotel precisely because it has not changed.