Bestsellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900 (2002) by Clive Bloom
In many respects, Clive Bloom’s ‘Bestsellers’ is an excellent book that I would recommend to anyone with an interest in the history of publishing, reading, and the emergence of ‘the bestseller’ in the twentieth century. And Bloom chooses some of my favourite authors, including P.G. Wodehouse to illustrate his points.
Bloom tracks the development of ‘the bestseller’ alongside increasing literacy levels in Britain, showing how new literature classifications emerged (high-brow and low-brow) to keep class distinctions alive in literature, once the lower classes were no longer illiterate. He exposes ‘literary fiction’ as little more than snobbery, suggesting that serious literature is made purposefully unfathomable and dire to ensure it remains the province of an expensively-educated elite.
As Bloom says:
No use of literary language can claim, ab initio, an aesthetic principle that is superior per se and no such claim can avoid the acrid whiff of moral, class and personal superiority. What emerges is a test of psychic health and moral eugenics rather than literary judgement. What is left is condemnation dressed as artistic judgement, and in each condemnation the unwashed smell of the popular creeps through.
Discovering that literary elitism is rooted in snobbery was a freeing revelation for me as a reader. I am released from the pressure of pretentious ‘must read lists’ and feel no obligation to participate in disparaging genres I don’t read (or the people who enjoy them).
As you can see, I found Clive Bloom’s Bestsellers well worth reading and reflecting upon, but there was a fly in the ointment. In the second half of the book, Bloom lists the best-selling authors of the twentieth century, along with a précis of their life and work. In his discussion of the author P.G. Wodehouse, Bloom states Wodehouse ‘broadcast for the Nazis’, but after a time ‘the public seemed to accept him’ again. To present this episode in Wodehouse’s life in such a way does a disservice to the author.
There has been a wealth of material written on the subject of Wodehouse’s wartime broadcasts, particularly since the relevant war office archives were released, with repeated researchers and biographers finding that Wodehouse was not a Nazi sympathiser or collaborator.* And readers will know that before the war, Wodehouse lampooned British fascist Oswald Mosley, through the character of Roderick Spode (in The Code of the Woosters, 1938).
Wodehouse’s Spode was a ridiculous bully, amateur dictator and leader of the ‘black shorts’:
The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”
When Wodehouse made his broadcasts, he had just been released from internment in a German prison camp, where he had been isolated from the events of the war since his detainment in France. Much had changed during that time – including the public mood in Britain. He had no cause to suspect that a gently amusing, stiff-upper-lip account of his own capture and imprisonment would be received so badly. He had no pro-Nazi sentiments.
Under the circumstances, it’s easy for Wodehouse readers to not only forgive (as Bloom indicates), but to also feel aggrieved that mistaken beliefs about Wodehouse continue to circulate.
Don’t let this put you off reading Bestsellers by Clive Bloom. It’s a terrific book. But I think it’s important to put the record straight.
*For more on Wodehouse’s wartime broadcasts, try Ian Sproat’s (1981) ‘Wodehouse at War’ and Robert McCrum’s (2004) Wodehouse: A Life. You can also read the fulltext of the broadcasts online.