Friday, June 08, 2007

More Snobbery With Violence

Colin Watson's 1971 book Snobbery With Violence is not, a cover blurb and my previous post to the contrary, a work of literary and social history, at least not in its first half. Rather, it is an entertaining, informative and occasionally illuminating essay and chronicle of the shortcomings, prejudices and popular reception of English crime fiction in the first half of the twentieth century. If it comes close to a traditional academic field, that field is sociology rather than history.

It's not history because Watson avoids examples that might create difficulties for his thesis. As English crime fiction grew unavoidably popular in its Golden Age between 1920 and 1939, Watson writes, "Book reviewers settled into an attitude of good-natured, if slightly supercilious tolerance." Such reviewers' "slightly facetious style," he says, "revealed singularly little about the books and although in most cases this was a blessing for their authors, the rare novel of quality was likely to suffer the injustice of exactly similar treatment simply because it happened to treat of crime. Librarians unwittingly performed a like disservice to the few writers in the field who believed that if a book of any kind was worth writing it was worth writing well."

You can guess what's coming, can't you? Watson fails to name any such "rare novel of quality" or any of the few writers who wrote them. He does cite Raymond Chandler, who "never produced a dull line," but for his observations about crime writing and English writers (Chandler, though American, was educated at Dulwich College) rather than as an author in his own right.

Without counterexamples of such rare crime novels by rare good writers, Watson can come off as a bit of a scold, albeit an entertaining one. But the funniest and most telling line, at least in the book's first half, is probably Chandler's, from "The Simple Art of Murder": "The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn't get published."

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd agree with your assessment entirely. It's a few years since I read it (must dig it out again) but I found it highly entertaining though, in its central argument, ultimately unpersuasive. Watson selects examples to support his thesis and tends to skate over anything that doesn't fit. To take one example dear to my heart, I think he does less than justice to Margery Allingham, in that he focuses largely on Albert Campion's early upper class/silly ass phase and ignores entirely the qualities of her later books. While it would be difficult to deny that Allingham was a conservative, her best books provide an eerie, poetic and often oddly subversive vision of wartime and post-war Britain. 'Tiger in the Smoke' and 'Hide my Eyes' in particular are among the most evocative depictions of London since Dickens.

June 08, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the note. As it happens, I'd only read a few more pages after I posted my comment before I realized additional comment would be called for. The book picks up steam with the chapters on Sax Rohmer, when Watson begins basing his argument more on examples and less on theory. I mean, once Watson presents a few hair-raising passages about Dr. Fu-Manchu, it does not take much persuasion to make his case that the books' sole purpose was "racial vituperation."

His argument grows more interesting once he moves into the 1920s, '30s and '40s because he's dealing with better writers, including Allingham and Christie. It will be interesting to see how he rises to the challenge of criticizing writers capable of evocative prose, such as Allingham's. He does cite two descriptions of villains from her work that are shocking, at least in isolation, because the villians are labelled similarly: "He was a foreigner"; "The man was a foreigner."

The opening chapters could have used a does of scientific method, or at least of social-scientific method. Watson's argument is plausible and his snippets of social history are enlightening, but he fails to build a convincing case.

June 08, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It might also be worth pointing out that the qualities Watson (rightly) identifies aren't confined only to so-called genre novels. I recall being so shocked by the casual anti-semitism of one of Anthony Powell's early novels that I've felt disinclined to pick up any others...

June 08, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's very much worth pointing out, I'd say. Watson writes that "It would be difficult to point to any other single branch of popular entertainment that conformed more strictly to current notions of decency," but he has not yet dealt with the question of non-popular entertainment -- or with any branch of popular entertainment other than detective stories, for that matter.

He does defend Shaw against the attacks of the hack populist writers, but he has not yet addressed the content of any art form other than detective writing. Granted, his book is about detective stories, but it would be nice to see him at least acknowledge the possibility that popular prejudices may have manifested themselves elsewhere. And if detective stories were really more of a field for prejudice and convention than other forms of writing, I'd like some theories about why this is so. But that may be a lot to expect from a relatively small book.

June 08, 2007  

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