The "Mid-List": "'Routine Books' of Yesteryear"--Piers Paul Read, Alec Waugh, and more


Well-Known Member
Aug 21, 2010
The 8 May 2015 Times Literary Supplement features an article by D. J. Taylor discussing recent reprints of novels of which no great stir had been expected when they first appeared. These books would keep their authors' names before the public, and might possess some interest even now. But they were not marketed as the authors' latest masterpieces as (Taylor suggests) books by Salman Rushdie and others are.

Taylor writes of "the wholly superannuated category of the 'mid-list' -- old-style publishers' shorthand for novels of which nothing very much was anticipated in the way of sales, written by professional men (and women) of letters in conditions of extreme financial pressure, sometimes on an annual basis, with occasional descents into outright pot-boiling, at a time when the first duty of a novelist was that he, or she, should be prolific."

Taylor reviews Piers Paul Read's Monk Dawson, Francis King's A Domestic Animal, Miles Gibson's Dancing with Mermaids, and Paul Ableman's As Near As I Can Get. I read the Read about 30 years ago (also his A Married Man). Perhaps A. N. Wilson's novels would belong to this category -- things like Wise Virgin, The Healing Art, Who Was Oswald Fish?, Scandal, The Sweets of Pimlico, Love Unknown* -- to name some novels that my reading list records, but of which I remember little or nothing.

Taylor finds that novels such as the ones he discusses often provide glimpses of "how people occupied their time thirty and forty years ago," of interest in a way similar to that of recent historians such as David Kynaston (whom I read) and Dominic Sandbrook (whom I've only glanced at). Taylor concludes that all four novels may be worth reading even though the "modesty of their objectives and the constraints of their milieux will no doubt perplex modern readers brought up on novels of global diaspora and psychological displacement." The novels by Read and others, he speculates, "could not be written now. Not because the localized paraphernalia they assemble in such pitiless detail has changed, but because much of the anatomizing process that novelists traditionally brought to their material is now largely redundant. To put it another way, if the modern novelist is so reluctant to explore native domestic interiors, it is because those interiors are so much more difficult to pin down, so much more diffuse, polyglot and morally ambiguous."


Taylor is writing, be it noted, about a different category than that of the bygone book that was a bestseller in its day, such as Santmyer's ...And Ladies of the Club, etc.

By the way, I wonder if William Fennerton's The Lucifer Cell is an example of a forgotten "mid-list" book. I ran across a short review in The New Yorker for 25 May 1968 (p. 159). The novel is set in England under Chinese Communist rule. The "cell" is a band that intends to assassinate the Prime Minister. "Mr. Fennerton writes very well, and makes Chinese Communist London so immediate that one can hardly believe the state he describes has not yet come into being."

Has anyone here ever read, or even heard of, this one?

*I remember that Wilson wrote a novel about a cat, called Stray, and that I read it and didn't find it as good as I'd hoped. All of these were books I read in the 1980s.
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Or what about Anthony Burgess? Many years ago I read A Clockwork Orange and 1985. Does anybody read Anthony Burgess now?
Or what about Anthony Burgess? Many years ago I read A Clockwork Orange and 1985. Does anybody read Anthony Burgess now?

Clockwork Orange is still read. Not sure about his other stuff, but even if Burgess is in a bit of a lull, he is still thought of as a post-war 20th century heavyweight in the same division as Kingsley Amis and Angus Wilson. He had serious chops as a polymath and arts critic.
Or what about Anthony Burgess? Many years ago I read A Clockwork Orange and 1985. Does anybody read Anthony Burgess now?
A Clockwork Orange was published in 1962. Even after sixty years, Alex and his droogs are still brilliant and disturbing. I believe Burgess wrote over thirty novels, most have sunk in the mud to join the millions of other mediocre books. That is the way of things, but I would be happy about that.
Burgess is still in print, though. I imagine he is studied in modern lit courses if nothing else.
I quite fancy a go at the Malayan trilogy.
Or what about Anthony Burgess? Many years ago I read A Clockwork Orange and 1985. Does anybody read Anthony Burgess now?
I've never read any, and nor do I expect I ever will, if I'm honest.
Best and most rewarding mid-lister of all-time: Hugh Walpole.
I've read A Clockwork Orange, which is very good, and I read 1985 about 10 years ago. 1985 had dated badly: the novel was inevitably dated, as it riffed off 1970s-specific things (particularly union disputes in the UK) but at points the essays felt like the complaints of a stereotypical grumpy old man. He made a couple of interesting points about 1984 but I wouldn't recommend it. I'm sure I read some other non-fiction by Burgess, but I can't remember what it was. His introduction to Titus Groan is really good, though. The BBC did a radio adaptation of his Enderby novels a while back, which I remember quite enjoying.

I have to say that I really miss the mid-list, especially in SFF: the sort of decent but not exceptionally innovative novels that writers could produce regularly in order to make a living. It's a great shame that it doesn't work like that now.
Could we put John P. Marquand in this category? Outside of The Late George Apley I'm not sure he's all that well remembered. In mid-career he returned the character that had started his career with Right You Are, Mr. Moto.

There's also Louis Bromfield and Thomas Chastain, maybe Robert Nathan. All writers with a measure of success but maybe not really the big bestsellers, and while a bit of literary cachet not really top tier there, either. (Note, I've read nothing by the latter three, and only one book by Marquand, a Moto adventure, so long ago I recall nothing of it.)

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