Was There a War Books Boom?

2 August 2021

Andrew Frayn, Edinburgh Napier University

I’m always interested in how true ideas are that we take for granted.  In my previous work on interwar First World War literature, I’d noted the repeated claim that there was a ‘War Books Boom’ around the end of the post-war decade, but also that there wasn’t a sustained, evidenced account of that.  I’ve won funding to employ research assistants to work on this alongside me, so it is very much a collaborative project: Dr Fiona Houston enumerated works published in the UK from 1926-33 that invoke the war; Louise Bell did the same for the Scottish context 1925-34, and then Dr James Benstead refined and analysed the data she gathered (James has written a separate piece for this month’s TMR on his data work). I’ve also currently got an intern, Beth Campbell, working on some social media and dissemination (coming soon).

Here, I’m going to trace a few lines through these projects, which are still very much developing.  We’ve still got to tidy up the data finally but, by examining previously published scholarship, National Library catalogues (British, of Scotland, and of Wales), and the trade periodical The Bookseller, Fiona found 1135 works published in the UK across those eight years situated in terms of the war. We included works obviously and directly about the conflict such as histories and memoirs, and also works that were marketed as pre- or post-war. There are limitations to the data, and we don’t claim that it is in any sense complete.  However, the extent of the data allows us to make evidenced claims about the War Books Boom based on a dataset which is, to our knowledge, larger than anything previously gathered.  Our research (figure 1) shows that the Boom has two peaks, one in 1928 (197 publications) and one in 1930 (268), and that the number of works published remained greater in 1933 (90) than in 1926 (79). Our data will be made available via DOIs when the articles that we’re working on are published.

Andrew figure 1

If we look at the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) and search the exact term “war books” (figure 2), there is an even more striking boom in terms of criticism and commentary: 1930 sees 1762 articles containing this phrase, over three times as many as the preceding year (564), and over four and a half times as many as in the subsequent year (385).  The month-by-month breakdown of these articles suggests that the major critical boom lasts for less than a year, from September 1929 to July 1930, with a peak in April 1930 (285 articles).  As with the publishing data, we realise that this is not an infallible method, but argue that the extent of the data is sufficient to support claims about trends.

Andrew figure 2

The shape of the Scottish boom broadly aligns, although it is harder to draw meaningful conclusions from the much smaller corpus.  It is of course difficult to separate out Scottish from British publications in the interwar period.  We took a maximalist view and included works connected with the war and Scotland by author, author ancestry, translator, subject, publisher location, and military service, counting 117 Scottish war books across these. As a result of this relatively small number, we also searched for reviews and articles in the BNA, particularly containing the precise term ‘war books’, coming up with 129 reviews in Scottish publications. The publication boom (excluding reviews) shows very little of a curve at all (figure 3), but there is a notable early spike in 1925-6, a (marginal) peak in 1929 and a longer tailing-off period.  There is a notable spike in the distribution of reviews in Scottish newspapers in the BNA, with 55 in 1930, tallying with the overall picture in the BNA.

Andrew figure 3

There are a number of social and political factors which align with these spikes: the ten-year anniversary of the Armistice and of the Treaty of Versailles; the Wall Street Crash and the beginning of Great Depression; the rise of Nazism in Germany.  But here I’ll pick up some threads briefly from the two major cultural successes of these years. In the UK-wide data there is a first spike of books published at the ten-year anniversary of the conflict in 1928, before a dip in 1929, and a further dramatic spike in 1930 as publishers respond to the ongoing international successes in multiple forms of iconic works that were giant publishing and sales successes such as Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen Nichts Neues (serialised beginning 11 November 1928; volume 1929; English translation as All Quiet on the Western Front 1929; film 1930) and R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End (first performance 1928; West End run 1929; publication 1929; novelisation 1930 with popular author Vernon Bartlett; film 1930); these works capitalise on the boom that they stimulate by repeated rewriting and republishing in different forms.  I’ll look briefly at some of the responses to each.

As well as the general impact, the success of All Quiet on the Western Front seems to precipitate, along with the socio-political context, an increased interest in German work.  Remarque also wrote a de facto sequel, The Road Back, serialised in late 1930 and early 1931 before appearing in book form in April 1931.  Evadne Price, writing as Helen Zenna Smith, wrote Not So Quiet… Stepdaughters of War, a hugely popular story of a female ambulance driver (a genre in and of itself); the title poses a direct challenge. Price would publish three further volumes under that pseudonym, Shadow Women (1932), Women of the Aftermath (1933) and Luxury Ladies (1933), illustrating the commercial potential in this area for a professional writer.  There was also a steady increase in the number of texts translated from the German, also peaking in 1930, and with over 50% of translated works recorded from the German (14 of 25 in 1930).  There is also a steep incline in 1933, in line with Hitler’s rise to power.

The influence of Journey’s End is less obvious in terms of direct responses in the same form: we only record 5 plays in 1930 compared to 66 novels. As a proportion of the entire output for the year, the number of plays is negligible, although it is important to remember that our dataset only includes the works which appear in either library catalogues from Britain or in bookselling periodicals. Moreover, while 5 may sound like an extremely low number, it is actually the joint highest total of recorded plays. The distribution of play publication from 1926–1933 aligns with the two peaks (1928 and 1930) of the publication boom. However, notable authors such as Robert Graves published plays: But It Still Goes On represents the direct influence of Journey’s End as it was commissioned by Maurice Browne, the producer of Sherriff’s play.[1] Unlike Journey’s End, Graves’ play takes place in the inter-war years, highlighting the enduring effect the conflict had on those who survived it. The title of the play nods to Graves’ own successful and still well-known memoir Goodbye to All That (1929), hinting at the difficulty of recovering from the trauma of war. Another play, Sigmund Graff and Carl Hintze’s The Endless Road, is directly compared to Journey’s End by The Bookseller.[2] While the number of recorded plays might not be high, Sherriff’s success is very much in the psyche of booksellers and publishers, to the extent it is the ‘go-to’ title for comparison when discussing newer scripts; there was also an anonymous novel, My Journey’s End (1932).

These are only some very sketchy lines through the vast amount of data, as I already test the usual word limits for TMR articles; it’s an overwhelming amount of information that I’m excited to continue working on.  I want to finish with a few more general reflections.  Firstly, as someone whose scholarship has previously been in pretty conventional literary and cultural history, it’s been quite a learning curve in thinking about how to dovetail using data with more conventional literary criticism.  That, ultimately, is my aim: to establish ways that understanding this data enables us to see items, trends and patterns that we couldn’t otherwise in the same way or to the same degree.  There’s so much more that can be done with this kind of data, and these kinds of methodologies, and I’m looking forward over the next few years to digging much more into the content of a good number of the well over 1000 books and several thousand newspaper articles that we’ve identified.  It’s also been a good experience in working collaboratively, and I certainly couldn’t have produced anything of the same quality without the other people who’ve worked with me on this, who’ve pushed the projects beyond what I had imagined.


Sources:

[1] Richard Perceval Graves, Robert Graves: The Years with Laura, 1926-1940 (Harmondsworth: Viking Penguin, 1990), pp. 142-3.

[2] The Publisher and The Bookseller, 28 March 1930, p. 681.

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