Yes, that’s right. Arnold Bennett was the most popular ‘classical novelist’ with Sheffield Libraries borrowers in 1931. His competition included the likes of Thomas Hardy, John Galsworthy and Charles Dickens.
Librarians have long been numbered among those who worry about fiction. Are novels worthwhile or a frivolous waste of time? Do they have anything to teach us or are they doing us harm?
One of the justifications for the free public library movement of the 19th century was self-improvement (of the working class in particular). Irritatingly, however, many borrowers persisted in preferring books of the imagination over books of information, leading librarians to denounce them.
From the hysterical:
…undoubtedly novels are the most dangerous literature of the age: they dissipate the attention; they appeal to the lazy feelings; sensation and novelty are all that are required from them … better would it be that these lending libraries should cease to exist than that they should disseminate evil influences. (J Taylor Kay, the librarian of Owen’s College Manchester, now the University of Manchester, in 1879).
To the patronising:
It may be that the library authorities of the future will maintain that the business of the library is to supply what the public wants to read irrespective of quality in much the same way that cinema proprietors supply films. (William Berwick Sayers, chief librarian, Croydon, in 1931).
But there were always public libraries which welcomed fiction. They took the view that good novels spoke to the human condition, and that popular fiction could refresh people. Sheffield was one of them. In 1931, the following article appeared in Sheffield’s Books and Readers bulletin:
Who is the most popular classical novelist?
Public Libraries are often criticised on the score of the amount of fiction issued by them. It is too readily assumed by these critics that fiction is all of one standard, and that a poor one, and to these Jeremiahs we point out the result of a recent test made of the popularity of twelve English novelists whose works may be definitely classed as literature. The Librarians at each of the Lending Libraries in the City were asked to report the number of books by certain authors available for loan and actually on loan to borrowers, with the following results:-
An examination of these details reveals that there is no reason to feel ashamed of the quality of the fiction read in Sheffield. The high percentage for Bennett is perhaps too flattering. It may be partially explained by the fact that the test was made soon after his death, but allowing for this factor, his popularity is remarkable.
It is fascinating to review this list 85 years on.
- They are all men. They are all white men. They are all British (yes, I’m counting Conrad, born in Poland, but naturalised in 1884). Eight out of the twelve were dead by 1931, and the four still alive were all well over 60 in 1931.
- Literary reputations change over time. Not all of the twelve authors be considered ‘classical’ today. Only half of them appear in Robert McCrum’s 2015 list of the best 100 novels written in English (a list which generated criticism, as all such lists do – this one not least because male authors heavily outnumbered female).
- The very fact of the test and the language used (‘no need to feel ashamed’) perhaps indicate the scale of the debate about fiction.
- We don’t know much about the context. Which titles were borrowed? Out of the 532 books by H G Wells, say, were some more popular than others? The article speculates that Arnold Bennett’s popularity was due to his recent death. There may have been other contributory factors such as the author’s work appearing on the radio. Wells, for example, took part in three radio talks between 1929 and 1931. Then there are the borrowers themselves. Were there more men than women, older than younger people? Finally, who were the popular novelists (we can speculate that they included the likes of Edgar Wallace and Ethel M Dell) and how would they compare if included? We can’t answer any of these questions, although we do know that a survey about five years later showed 40 per cent of the fiction borrowed to be ‘classic and standard’ and the rest ‘semi-standard and popular’.
‘Prose fiction today’, wrote Sheffield’s City Librarian in the 1930s, ‘provides one of the most common means by which social, political, religious and other ideas are given to the people’, while action stories had a ‘definite, if limited, place… They give mental refreshment to highly intelligent and well-read library borrowers, they are “introductory readers” to [new borrowers] and … “escape” literature to [the] mentally and physically jaded.’