A cri de coeur from the 18 year old debut novelist Susan Hill on the perils of sensationalist journalism and pre-publication hype can be found in the Autumn 1960 issue of the Coventry-based arts magazine Umbrella. On first reading 'A Sudden Smash of Fame' this seems an unusually vehement complaint for a teenaged first time author to make, but perhaps not when we consider that 1960 was the year of the ‘Lady Chatterley Trial’.
Hutchinson had accepted Hill’s debut novel The Enclosure while she was still an eighteen year old pupil at Carr’s Hill School in Coventry. Somehow the papers had sniffed out the story and all hell broke loose. The Daily Mail (quelle surprise) was the worst offender. The young author was accused of having written a ‘sex-ridden sensational novel’ ‘(Hill’s words) and the press generally was condemned for exploiting a teenager’s naïf responses to questions from hard-bitten reporters anxious for a salacious story, and of making things up. For instance, from an innocent refusal of a cigarette one reporter had written that Hill disliked smoking. When, in reply to a question on whether she liked the novels of Francoise Sagan, Hill had replied ‘I like her style very much, but not her themes ‘, this appeared as ‘I think her themes are trite---she is finished’.
Hill expressed her fury at this fabrication and, like many victims of the press before and after, argued that those who didn’t know her tended to believe all they read. As a result of these lies she had been 'cut dead in the street'. Hill also complained that the popular press is very willing to build a young author up on no critical grounds whatsoever 'It very easy to forget,' she observed,'that the people who write all these things have never read one word of the book'. Indeed, The Enclosure, wasn’t to appear until the following year. All this press flattery, Hill felt, tended to make the job of writing her second novel more fraught with problems.
Hill did, however, admit that on balance, the publicity surrounding her novel would help to sell it. Despite this, she was not willing to excuse the practices of gutter journalism, which sought to exaggerate and even lie in order to cater to the public taste for ‘sex and sensationalism’
“It is worrying and frustrating after trying very hard to avoid this, to find that the press has created the idea in the public mind, quite without foundation, that mine is ‘another obscene book by a teenager’. And people will simply not believe me when I deny it “
What you might not know about Susan Hill
* A question asking for the name of her University once appeared on one of those pub quiz machines.
* Her former husband of thirty eight years, Stanley Wells, rarely smiled while a lecturer at Birmingham University and was know affectionately by his students as Volpone.
*Her book, The Magic Apple Tree, was set in a village called Barley, which is the name of a real village in Hertfordshire, best known for producing the first Mayor of New York City and two Archbishops of Canterbury. Unfortunately, Hill seemed unaware that such a village existed.
*While serving as the president of the famous Alliance of Literary Societies, Hill did not show her face at a single AGM. Luckily, she was replaced by the much more diligent Aeronwy Thomas, late tousled-haired daughter of poet Dylan. [RH]