English adventure novelists as literature

I am a fan of a certain sort of popular fiction: the English adventure story of the 1940s and 1950s. I take this type to include Nevile Shute, Hammond Innes, Nicholas Monserrat, Geoffrey Household and – a recent discovery for me – Nigel Balchin. All these writers seem to me far more richly satisfying than is commonly supposed. It is the last-mentioned who prompted the best bit of literary criticism attaching to this genre, by that master of popular culture, Clive James.

Here is Mr James, writing in the 1970s, of Balchin:

To be a brilliant popular novelist rather than a pedestrian serious one—to be glittering thin rather than dull solid—implies an impermeable surface, a level below which aesthetic interest does not run. But it seems to me that Balchin is aesthetically interesting in the last analysis as well as the first, and that his reputation ought not to be allowed to remain in its present state of unfocussed semi-respectability.

I think what James is saying, and I certainly am, is that some popular novelists are capable of tackling big or difficult subjects whilst holding one’s attention in the manner of a thriller or adventure writer rather than a “literary” one.  In the case of Balchin’s The Fall of the Sparrow (1955), psychology, physiology and warfare are all important features (as they were in Balchin’s life) as the author gives us a portrait of an elusive charmer who can survive war but not peace.

I intend to write more on these themes, but I wanted now simply to point out some lines of argument which are worth pursuing. Firstly, all these writers were importantly shaped by the experience of war. Secondly, several of them were skilled in practical sciences. Thirdly, some of them were involved in psychology and propaganda. Fourthly, several of them were involved in practical commerce. So I think of them as men who were practical or skilled in “real world” matters. They had all also been involved in “real world” adventures or war or both.

I think why they are so interesting is that they brought us the worlds of blood and sweat, and adventure, and war and commerce and variously then set to work weaving in themes of love, psychology, spirituality (and in some cases, the transcendental) without self-consciousness.  They were men of deep and wide experience and of serious intent and insight and were determined to make popular fiction out of them all.

I don’t think the tradition is dead: Frederick Forsyth, le Carre and Robert Harris all produce work which delivers more than might be supposed from page-turners.

Nonetheless, my clutch of novelists from the 402 and 50s seem exciting and rewarding to me partly because I am in awe of the writing they produce from lives which were not solely literary.

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Publication date

25 October 2013


Mind & body; On books