Everyone’s history of reading is personal. As the unnamed teenager who was asked about the history of London said; ‘It started with me. It ends with me.’ In other words, we can only see it from our perspective. Here’s mine;
There was a time when literature was a hobby for those with an education, something with which to while away the long hours of a summer afternoon. If you were well educated, it meant you had wealth and therefore servants, and so your daily existence was less about finding food or keeping warm and more about finding something to do.
Few working class early Victorians were educated well enough to enjoy the higher pursuits, and the situation continued in stasis throughout the length of then 19th century. So when Sir Arthur Sullivan sought to marry, his intended attempted to make him stop writing songs for the masses, who had championed his operettas in music-halls, and turn his talents to high church requiems, so that those in her class could admire him.
In the 20th century, writing for the masses found its feet with pulp heroes like Sapper, Raffles, Sexton Blake and Bulldog Drummond. It stayed entirely separate from the ‘higher’ writing of Virginia Woolf and EM Forster, who questioned life and psychological states while the lower orders merely craved escape. However, the newly empowered middle classes could enjoy novelists like Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green and Somerset Maughan, who were able to cross the line to some extent by writing in a style that did not rely on the experience of privilege.
Then came an extraordinary heyday in the postwar years when the two halves joined and blurred together. Paperbacks which brought serious thinkers, experimentalists and pulp-lovers together, so Bertrand Russell and JG Ballard and Alan Sillitoe and RD Laing could be found alongside Eric Ambler and Neville Shute. It seemed a new world order of literature beckoned. If the class system fell – as everyone in the 1960s was convinced it would – surly the barriers in literature would fall too, and create a new level playing field of free-thinking literature.
But several things happened that reset the clock to Victorian times – television became the popular medium, the class system endured, the rich/poor gap grew again, and books were once more separated out by demarcations of education and economy.
So we reach the present time, wherein ‘thinking’ fiction is placed on the general fiction shelf, and everything else is given a genre. We have elitist bookshops in wealthy parts of cities and popular bookshops in working towns. Physical books have once more become an expensive luxury for those who can afford them, and afford the time to read them.
But the internet is once again blurring those lines. While publishers will still happily trot authors off to a library in the Midlands to read to a handful of senior citizens, it’s easier and faster to find new readership through social networking, and the lower online price of e-books encourages a new young readership.
I did a panel in Bristol at which a young man stood up and said; ‘I’ve been listening to you all talking about the magic of bookshops for an hour, but none of my friends has bought a book in a shop for the last 5 years because they’re too expensive.’
Higher literature now finds itself in a corner of low sales and low appeal, and the middle swathe has taken power. We aspire, and may be persuaded to do so in our reading. E-reading is allowing us to do just that by making purchases we might never have considered when confronted with the same titles on bookshop shelves.
All arguments happily received.