We agreed that the novel is absolutely the only vehicle for the thought of our day. (Joseph Conrad, 1924)
The benefits of reading novels (and even of reading in general) have long been debated. For some fiction is a clear waste of time, but for others an education, an entertainment, an escape. There are people who have never touched a novel, at least since leaving school, and there are people who always have at least one close at hand.
For Reading Sheffield, we asked our interviewees if they were ever made to feel guilty about reading. The majority said no, with many talking about encouragement from parents and teachers. But some became readers against the odds:
If I picked a book up to read she’d say, ‘Put that down and come and help me do so-and-so. You’re wasting your time and my time’. You know. So she’d always find me a job to do. (Doreen Gill)
‘Did anyone make you feel that reading was a waste of time?’ ‘Uh, yeah, I think so. My mum was a very practical person, she were always busy doing something.’ (Dorothy Norbury)
And some liked reading but preferred fact to fiction:
I’ve always preferred fact over fiction. Fiction is, in my opinion, very nice and you can lose yourself in fiction, but at the end of the day, you come back to fact and it’s nice to read about people who have started and had an influence on the world one way or another, whether they’re famous or not so famous. (Peter Mason)
I liked History – I’ve always slightly thought that novels are a waste of time in that … I suppose, indirectly, you learn things but … I got more out of biographies and history books. (Peter B)
In Sheffield, the City Librarian, J P Lamb, and the Council’s Libraries, Art Galleries and Museums Committee had their say about reading novels in the annual report for 1936-37.
There are many misunderstandings about the place of prose fiction in the work of a public library, and it is felt that an examination of some of them might suitably be made in this report. Prose fiction today provides one of the most common means by which social, political, religious, and other ideas and beliefs are given to the people. The novel also offers a suitable framework for the presentation of history, and there are many cases of books issued during the past few years which have given such clear and vivid pictures of political and social events that they are used as historical and social source books. Indeed, so valuable is the novel form for work of this kind that many biographies are now written in a style which makes it difficult to decide whether they should be classed as biography or fiction. Even the least pretentious novel gives ideas and mental pictures to the reader, and to this extent allows him to project his mind beyond his limited environment. If, as some people seem to wish us to believe, the reading of novels is not a good thing, this should surely also be true of other imaginative literary forms such as poetry, drama, and essays. But as all educational institutions, particularly those concerned with higher education, give considerable time in their curricula to attempts to train young people in the appreciation and understanding of imaginative works in all these forms, it would appear that these are considered by educationists to be an important part of the process of education. It is difficult then, to see why the intellectual value of the issue of fiction from libraries should not be looked upon as equal, if not superior, to much of what is classed as non-fiction.
It may be that those who decry the issue of fiction believe that public libraries issue only the more popular type. A test of this was recently made in the Central Lending Library. All the fiction stock was divided into two groups – 1. Classic and standard literature; 2. Semi-standard and popular; – and a test of issues was made on this basis. No less than 41.38 per cent. of the fiction issued from this library was found to be in the first group. If the system of classification were based on the quality instead of the form of such books, these issues would have been recorded in the literature class. The division of fiction into such groups is by no means an easy task, and probably no two persons would agree about the placing of certain modern writers. The semi-standard and popular group includes such novelists as H. E. Bates, Hans Fallada, Winifred Holtby and G. B. Stern. The quality of the work of some of the writers included in this group might be considered by some critics to be high enough to justify their inclusion among the standard writers. H. E. Bates, for example, steadily gains in reputation among discerning people, and his writings already have a high place in the regard of good judges of literature.
Despite the difficulties attendant on any attempted classification of values in the writing of novels, it is felt that this experiment has been worth while because it has made possible an authoritative statement of a fact already known to the [Council] Committee – that a very considerable proportion (approaching 50 per cent.) of the fiction issued from the libraries is definitely of a high standard. It should not be assumed, however, that the remaining items are of poor quality. The semi-standard group includes, in addition to those mentioned above, scores of modern writers of considerable literary gifts – Vera Brittain, Ethel Mannin, Russell Green, P. Bottome, E. Boileau and W. Greenwood – for example. There are, of course, works by writers of action and problem stories in this group. These books have a definite, if limited, place in the library organisation. They give mental refreshment to highly intelligent and well-read library borrowers, they are “introductory readers” to those newly finding an interest in reading, and they are “escape” literature to those who are mentally and physically jaded. They widen vocabulary, extend horizons, stimulate ideas, and often add factual knowledge, and there is a good deal to be said for a well-known lecturer’s remarks at a library lecture, that “even Edgar Wallace may be discovered and hailed by a literary critic of 100 years hence as having possessed gifts of characterisation, humour, and literary skill which give him a secure place in the literary text-books of the future.”
I have not (yet) discovered what prompted this outburst in an official report. Had some august person expressed disquiet in the national press perhaps? Or had a local councillor muttered something after finding novel-reading in his household? Or was there research showing that fiction was generally a bad thing? (At all events, these all sound like openings for novels to me.)
Whatever the reasons behind it, the statement of support is fascinating for:
- its conclusions that (i) ‘the intellectual value of … fiction from libraries [is] equal, if not superior, to much of what is classed as non-fiction’; and (ii) novels which are not, in the terms used here, ‘classic’ or ‘standard’ can still have considerable merit and may one day be acclaimed
- the experiment dividing the fiction stock into classic/standard and semi-standard/popular. 41.38 per cent of fiction issued came from the first group, suggesting a taste among ordinary readers for great literature (or at least a willingness to try it). But we have no details of this experiment, to indicate scale etc. A librarian friend, by the way, says that similar experiments have been attempted – something else to look up…
- the assessment of authors of the day as ‘semi-standard’. Perhaps now we would say ‘middlebrow’. Who is included, how selected and how viewed today (if at all) are all intriguing:
H E Bates, described here as ‘steadily [gaining] in reputation among discerning people’ but perhaps best known now for television’s Ma and Pop Larkin
Hans Fallada, the German novelist who is enjoying a revival for novels such as Alone in Berlin and The Drinker but who also attracts controversy for staying in Nazi Germany
Winifred Holtby, the Yorkshire writer whose most famous novel is South Riding. She has been praised by our Reading Sheffield interviewees for describing a Yorkshire they recognise
G B Stern, whose novels were often apparently partly autobiographical. Try The Matriarch
Vera Brittain: her novels are now forgotten but the non-fiction Testament of Youth is a classic. She gave one of Sheffield’s ‘Celebrity Lectures’, on ‘The World Today’, on 13 February 1936, in what is now called the Library Theatre, to an audience of 470
Ethel Mannin, the novelist and travel writer. Perhaps she came to mind because on 16 November 1936 she had visited Sheffield to open the local exhibition for Sheffield Book Week
Russell Green: perhaps the least remembered of all this list, he wrote several novels and edited Coterie and New Coterie, early 20th century journals championing modernist poetry
Ethel Boileau, a favourite of the mother of one of our interviewees, Sir Norman Adsetts. Furrowed Middlebrow quotes some reviews and adverts here, including this for The Map of Days: ‘Romance novel of a modern Lancelot, a giant of a soldier, an ardent lover—destined to live and love greatly, and to have a strange power over women. Includes elements of second sight, mysticism, and the First World War.’
Walter Greenwood, author of Love on the Dole (1932) about working-class life in Salford in the early 20th Working class life in Sheffield was probably not much different.
Edgar Wallace, the prolific writer of thrillers including the Four Just Men and Mr J G Reeder series. Seventy-eight years after the annual report (‘even Edgar Wallace may be discovered and hailed by a literary critic of 100 years hence’), Edgar Wallace is remembered but not yet celebrated.