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International Socialism, January 1976


Sandy Irvine



From International Socialism, No.85, January 1976, p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Claud Cockburn
Penguin, 60p

Marxist ‘cultural’ analysis all too often means dry, jargon-packed studies of ‘great’ works of literature while novels that most people actually read go ignored.

Claud Cockburn’s Bestseller is a refreshing change. In it, he investigates the most popular fiction of the first 40 years of this century. Not only is he consistently entertaining but he also shows how all kinds of insights into social values and attitudes can be discovered.

In the introduction, he discusses the problem of how much can be deduced from what people read. He convincingly argues that ‘bestsellers are the “mind and face” of an age’. They are not just some capitalist promotional con. Their success is a true reflection of what the public wants. Cockburn has no time for the intellectual snobs who when caught reading Spillane claim they ‘really’ prefer Shakespeare.

Some of his selected novels will still be well-known – Beau Geste, The Sheik, and The Blue Lagoon, for example, were made into equally successful films, still being repeated on TV. Others are now forgotten. In each case, he lets the books speak for themselves, quoting long extracts. He supplies the links in the plots and only occasionally drops in his own comments.

All the extracts show how much popular fiction is packed with the values and assumptions of capitalist society. Class divisions and hierarchy in general are depicted as part of the natural order. Women are equally naturally inferior. Nationalism is all pervading and often spills over into the crudest racialism. In When It Was Dark, for example, the author is openly anti-semitic: Jews are described by such phrases as ‘a great grey slug’. The ‘wogs begin at Calais’ outlook obviously struck a very responsive chord among the readership. Given the period, the bulk of the readers would have been middle class and we get a good insight into their mentality.

In several novels, their jealousy and resentment of ‘jumped-up’ capitalists are clearly expressed. But equally clear is their fear of the potential power of their ‘inferiors’, the working class. Trapped between, they naturally cling to notions of national unity, discipline and patriotism before class. For them, social hierarchy is good and proper but class struggle is feared and its inevitability something to be denied. Several characters decry ‘this class war nonsense’. Of course it is the workers who are most despised – if you can’t do anything about those above you, you can at least kick those below. In all the novels Cockburn discusses, only two actual workers appear. One is ‘arrogant and bullying’ so, of course, he has to be sacked. The other is the middle class vision of the ideal worker. This is how he thinks of his boss: ‘I’ve got the back and he’s got the head’. Otherwise, workers exist as a dark, anonymous mass in the background, ever threatening to get above themselves and submerge decent people and decent values. No wonder people who thought this way should be ready to rally to the Oswald Mosleys of this world.

Other novels topped the sales lists by catering for the blissful escapist fantasies of their readers. Here again, Cockburn has many interesting observations to make about why, for example, the thought of being abducted into the desert by a Sheik (don’t worry, he’s really the half-English, half-Spanish son of a noble so it’s OK) should have appealed to so many.

Overall the main difference between Cockburn’s selection and today’s bestsellers is the former’s air of complete innocence. Soldiers never commit atrocities, policemen are never bent: after all, it wouldn’t be cricket. Only foreigners and socialists don’t play by the rules. But if you look at today’s top writers from Ian Fleming to Catherine Cookson, not all that much has changed. It’s still the same old escapism, the same diet of super heroes we ordinary folk are encouraged to admire.

Socialist analysis can only benefit if Cockburn follows up with a study of later bestsellers.

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