Thursday, January 16, 2014

How Britain's Most Beloved Writer, Enid Blyton, Never Cracked America

According to a 2008 survey by the Costa Book Awards, she was voted - ahead of Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl, Jane Austen and William Shakespeare - as Britain's most beloved writer. She has sold more than 600 million copies of her books internationally, and is widely revered in not just Britain, but India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and many other nations.

Hammering out 10,000 words per day, she was one of the most prolific writers of her generation - amassing a bibliography of approximately 800 titles. She is routinely cited as the most famous British children's writer of the 20th Century.

And yet, Enid Mary Blyton's work never caused anywhere near the literary avalanche in the United States that it did in the British Commonwealth. In fact, sales of her books - not to mention the name recognition that would have followed - were tiny by comparison. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Dickens, Dahl, Austen and Shakespeare were, and are, very well-known among American book lovers.

Some say that part of the reason for the disparity between Blyton's success rate on one side of the Pond and the other lies in the differing markets of the two countries. In 1940s Britain, she faced little in the way of competition; children's adventure books represented something of a gap in the market and Blyton's books were considered innovative by parents who dared to approve of them.

In the United States, meanwhile, children's adventure stories were already very popular, due in large part to writers such as L. Frank Baum (famous for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) and Edward Stratemeyer - himself an unfathomably prolific writer, who saturated the American market with more than 1,300 books.

Moreover, her works were (and are) frequently critiqued for their outdated racial language - such as the seemingly pejorative usage of words like Golliwogs and nigger (indeed, in 1944 she wrote a book called The Three Golliwogs). What's more, there is evidence that various libraries refused to stock Blyton's books in light of not only their apparent racial undertones, but latent sexism and gender stereotyping.

With the United States a hotbed of social unrest during the civil rights era of the 1950s and '60s, it is perhaps not surprising that Blyton's domestic popularity failed to equate to success across the Atlantic.

But many have argued that Blyton's use of non-PC phrases was merely a product of the time in which she lived and that the biggest crime she made was producing supposedly sub-standard work. To that end, the BBC placed a twenty-year ban on radio versions of her work, labeling Blyton a "tenacious second rater." Jean E. Sutcliffe - a reviewer at the BBC - wrote, "Her stories...haven't much literary value. There is rather a lot of the Pink-winky-Doodle-doodle Dum-dumm type of name (and lots of pixies) in the original tales."

A second and perhaps more damning reviewer summarised the BBC's stance with the following quote: "This is really not good enough. Very little happens and the dialogue is so stilted and long-winded... it really is odd to think that this woman is a bestseller."

But there are those - mainly the parents and, more importantly, the children at whom the books are aimed - who refute the BBC's claims. Fans of her books, which yielded such famous series as The Famous Five, Malory Towers, The Wishing-Chair, The Magic Faraway Tree and Noddy, point to Blyton's gift for imagination. In their eyes, hers were tales of magical adventure and memorable characters who taught the reader, in equal measure, to dream.

But so far, with the exception of mediocre book sales, her stock in the United States has risen to little more than a heavily edited TV show on American television. In 1998, the short-lived PBS show Make Way For Noddy aired on US television, with most of the British accents being dubbed over with American ones. Furthermore, the rights to Noddy were sold in 2012 to DreamWorks Classics - a subsidiary of Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks Animation.

Now, before you start getting your hopes up for a Spielberg/Noddy motion picture, it should be pointed out that the great director has virtually nothing to do with Dreamworks Classics, who have also purchased the rights to Postman Pat, Basil Brush and Where's Wally? If anything, Noddy will simply be rebooted as a TV show.

And so, as the copyright on some of Blyton's early books move ever closer to expiration, the following questions should be asked: has the Blyton phenomena simply missed the boat on cracking America? Or, as her books do indeed enter the public domain, becoming free to download and share, will her work take on a life of its own in much the same way the now classic movie It's A Wonderful Life did? Only time will tell.


Laurence is a British expat living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a contributor for BBC America and writes a weekly column for Anglotopia. Having graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in English Language and Creative Writing, Laurence runs this blog, Lost In The Pond, charting the endless cultural and linguistic differences between Britain and The United States. 

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3 comments:

vp said...

Agatha Christie had many of the same faults as Blyton (race and gender stereotypes), but she was and is very popular in the US.

Perhaps they are OK for adults, but not for children.

Donna said...

I was first introduced to Enid Blyton during a summer-long visit to England in 1974. Since the local children seemed to have ZERO interest in befriending the American kid, I turned to books for companionship and fell in love with The Five Find-Outers and Dog. I have such fond memories of the stories that when the Mystery Series was recently reprinted in hardcover, I ordered the entire set from Amazon UK.

Anonymous said...

My guess would be that Blyton's lack of success in the U.S. had as much to do with the proliferation of American children's literature (the entire Oz series of books, the "Little House" books, the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Charlotte's Web when it came along in 1952, etc.) not to mention the market saturation of works of other British children's authors popular in the States (Carroll, Kipling, Dahl, J.M. Barrie, Lofting) as it did censorious librarians.

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