Are Novels Deteriorating ?


Discovered in a copy of the November 1927 issue of Good Housekeeping, a book-sized magazine with a middlebrow literary flavour ( Arnold Bennett, W.J.Locke, Frank Swinnerton, and St John Irvine contributed to it ), is this feature by G.H.Grubb, the London chief of Putnam’s.

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As we can see, Grubb regrets the thousands of manuscripts that he and his fellow editors have to deal with every year, ninety-eight per cent of which are ‘wasted efforts …inconsequential manuscripts written by inconsequential people ‘.He expresses barely disguised disdain for the lack of trouble taken by new novelists, who see in the novel only opportunities for fame and celebrity, rather than the practice of a ‘high art ‘. But, he admits that like every other publisher, he is obliged to continue his task of sifting in the tiny hope that ‘the real thing of merit’ will appear. Indeed, he feels that in the slight decline of what he calls the ‘ sex novel’ ( later to be labelled ‘ bodice rippers ) that the future looks promising for the emergence of a ‘ clean novel, rightly admixed with sentiment, true in its life realisms, and big and broad enough to find a place for a little humour and a modicum of religion ‘.

The problem with this point of view is that Grubb does not define his terms. What, for instance, does he mean by ‘the real thing of merit ‘or ‘a novel which positively moves us to a deep admiration ‘or ‘a clean novel’. Was Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which had appeared earlier in the year a ‘sex novel ‘or was it ‘the real thing of merit’?

So were Putnams publishing any novelists of ‘real merit’ in the ‘twenties? It doesn’t look like it. A best seller seems to have been Florence L Barclay, whose romantic novels were appearing years after her death in 1921. Admittedly, the acclaimed Sinclair Lewis and Lord Dunsany were also Putnam authors, but novelists of this merit were few and far between. And who were the novelists of ‘ merit ‘that Putnam was to publish in the thirties ? Most of these were childrens’ writers, like Moyra Charlton, and anodyne novelists like Florence Klickmann, who also chatted about Nature. The one ‘ gem ‘ among all this dross was Ayn Rand, whose We the Living (1936) was to spawn best-selling right wing political and philosophical fiction, most notably Atlas Shrugged.

As for contemporary poetry, the Putnam list is crammed with third-rate ‘poets’, not one of which has any reputation today. Grubb must have looked with envy at a publisher like Faber, who had on their books Eliot, Auden, MacNeice, Pound, and Spender, among many others.

Today, Putnam can hardly be called a reputable publisher of fiction, given that today it lists among its eminent authors such literary titans as Frank Herbert, Tom Clancy and Patricia Cornwell. But hey, surely at last these are the ‘clean’ novels (sort of) ‘rightly admixed with sentiment ‘and ‘ true ‘ in their life realisms etc. that Grubb wanted to see. [RR]


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