Among the other passing oddities I received in this past week (and no, I don’t intend to discuss one of these each day, because I’d never get time for NEXT week’s oddities) isa little pamphlet published around 1939. In it, Hazel Sample outlines 67 “Pitfalls for Readers of Fiction”. Readers of fiction have been assailed for many years from all sides about the uselessness of these pursuits, and the pernicious ideas which come from them. But 67 pitfalls in a mere 33 pages is something of a record, and I looked at Hazel Sample’s sample rather closely.
She has, of course, chosen the sort of books that my own volunteers have called “cheap and easy”: the genre novel, the romance, the western, middle-of-the-road fiction with a prescribed number of chills, tears, and rescues. In fact, she chose Emilie Loring, Zane Grey, Harold Bell Wright, and Gene Stratton Porter. These were books anybody might have picked up at the library in 1939, though my library might have thought Zane Grey a bit too bloodthirsty and Harold Bell Wright’s popularity may have been fading a bit even by 1939.
The early going is pretty stock: the adolescent reader is less likely to pick up on the author’s philosophies of life, the adult reader needs to guide the young mind around the hidden agenda, etc. etc. It’s when she states that Zane Grey gives an unrealistic picture of sexual awakening that I began to sit up and take notice, so to speak.
What Ms. Sample is objecting to in these four authors, and by extension much of pop fiction, is the Happy Ending. These authors, she says, give young people an entirely inaccurate picture by stating that perseverance will always lead to success, that romantic love is the best and only kind, and that evil brings its own retribution. Pitfalls, she says, all pitfalls.
I’ll grant her Cliches, but Pitfalls? I wish she’d had more space to explain herself. She hints that she has more to say, and I bet she did. She analyzes very briefly the First Kiss (always an insult if he hasn’t said he loves her) and giving One’s All For Love (the ultimate ennobling gesture and another Pitfall). But she doesn’t get time to compare her Pitfalls: The one that we all have an innate and infallible conscience could have been contrasted with the one about the need for a rigid moral code, or Success In Life Means Lots of Money with All Rich Men are Greedy Louts Who Think of Nothing But Money. Well, we need to protect the young, I suppose, but she does seem to begin to argue that only authors who have no preconceived values at all should be writing fiction. (By the way, how many of these pitfalls were available in NONfiction at the time?)
I’ve run into some odd commentaries on literature in my time, but this one takes some kind of prize. First time in my life I REALLY wish I’d read Zane Grey as a kid.