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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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