Thursday, 13 March 2008

The Golden Age

One of my colleagues at Deal Writers has given me a book charting the career of the great British pulp writer, Hank Janson. His cheap detective novels were notorious in the 1950s for their portrayal of sex and violence. I’ve never knowingly read a Hank Janson book (although I may have done in my youth). But Stephen Frances, the real-life writer behind the books, churned out a best-selling novel every three months in his heyday. That was before the Home Office crackdown on lurid gangster novels, issuing destruction orders under the Obscene Publications Act. The banning of the Hank Janson books caused an uproar and, according to Steve Holland, the author of The Trials of Hank Janson, led directly to the infamous Lady Chatterley case.

What really grabbed my interest, though, wasn’t the legal trials of Stephen Frances but the writer’s sheer determination to get his words into print. We modern authors tend to complain that it is so much more difficult to get published these days. Publishers generally won’t even consider a novel unless it has been submitted to them by a literary agent. Literary agents are inundated with unsolicited manuscripts. Apart from women’s magazines, there is no market for the commercial short story. We look back nostalgically to the ‘Golden Age’ when everything was so much easier.

Stephen Frances, aka Hank Janson, began his writing career during the second world war by setting up his own publishing company. This was a time of massive paper shortages here in Britain. But rather than see that as an insurmountable problem, Frances saw it as an opportunity. ‘Due to paper rationing and shortages,’ Steve Holland quotes him as reflecting, ‘the bookstalls had little reading matter to display and eagerly snapped up anything on offer.’ Frances was so determined to offer reading matter to these bookstalls he spent most of his time ‘running around’, going from printer to printer, searching for paper. All this despite day-long electricity cuts during one of the worst winters on record. ‘Everything was in short supply . . . Bombs fell, disrupted deliveries and destroyed premises.’

Ah, the ‘Golden Age’.


Mary Witzl said...

There is something wonderfully enterprising about what Janson did, for all that his books were not great literary works. And turning out a pulp novel every three months in the days before word processors and even electric typewriters -- that really is something! I wonder how many of us could do that now...?

DBA Lehane said...

Hi Paul,

Unfortunately I've not been able to find any other way of contacting you other than through a comment, so I hope you are not too put out by such a public approach. I host a writing group elsewhere on the net and we are currently running a short fiction contest. I'm looking to get in someone to select the winning entries from the final shortlist (most probably no more than 5 stories to read) and I would really appreciate it if you would consider being our "expert" judge? You can contact me by email at darren(at)dbalehane(dot)com if you would like to know a little more and discuss it further?

Paul said...

Mary - I think there are lessons here for many writers. It has certainly given me food for thought, and I'm meeting a couple of colleagues next week to talk about lessons we could learn, not just from Janson but also from our experience of publishing the Deal Writers anthology last year. I'll blog the outcome . . .

DBA - I've emailed you!