The horror of novelty books

Posted on: 28 April 2011 by Alexander Hay

They're 'humorous', but don't expect too many laughs

A pulping mill, where many novelty books belong

Novelty books are a curious sub-species, often only found on or near the counter of stores, placed in such a way so they don't cheapen the rest of the stock but near enough to the end of the shopping experience for an undiscerning customer to consider buying on impulse.

A few months later they are then handed in, unread, to the local charity shop where they quietly moulder, the five minutes of amusement replaced by a cavernous apathy at such shoddy products.

Anything of worth is, of course, out of the question. Novelty books slash meaning down to the bone, reducing the entire works of Shakespeare or Plato down to a few trite soundbites, stripping history down to some curious anecdotes about flatulence and providing cheesy, buck passing sentimental tosh for Men Who Care Too Much, Grandparents Who Love Their Grandchildren, Babes That Say The Funniest Things and Kittens Somehow Posed Into Tacky Pictures.

It's cynical, lame kitsch aimed at the most beige of consumers. No wonder they keep bringing them out - there must be a market.

EJ Thribb could have written better

Three new releases do nothing to buck this trend. The first of these is “Colemanballs 15”, the latest mini compendium of malapropisms, slipped tongues and foot-in-mouth from the pages of Private Eye. Its back cover blurb claims this is "A gobsmacking garland of ghastly gobbledygook from the good and the great."

In that sense it's very lazy - a case of just reprinting something most of its core audience has already read and hoping they buy it. Since there are now 15 volumes, it's safe to say they do, but it's hard not to wonder if there's something rather cruel and unnecessary at laughing at mistakes we all make from time to time.

There's also a deep snobbery at play, mocking the slurred, inarticulate speech of often poorly educated or slightly dim footballers and members of the public. Given that 'Lord Gnome' and his staff at Eye towers are all public schoolboys who went to Oxbridge, the experience leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Who satirises the satirists?

Hurhurhurhurhur - you said 'fartleberries' - hurhurhurhurhur...

Next is "Lobcocks and Fartleberries" - not, sadly, a re-imagining of The BFG with added swearing and gritty adult themes, but a short dictionary of rude phrases and slang from the 18th century.

This is actually an abridged and sanitised excerpt from an 18th century tome by one Francis Grose that covered such lewd flourishes as 'muckworm' (miser) and 'athanasian wench' (the office bike).

In an odd sort of way, it makes a valid case for the seamy underside of 18th century life and modern day hip hop culture being spiritual brothers, what with all the 'rapping' (swearing), 'Dogs' Wives' (bitches) and 'outrunning the constable' (dodging your debts), not to mention creative rechristening of various areas of anatomy. Is well urban, though!

Sadly, and as said, this is another slash job, which is to say, someone has chosen to preserve the most commercially viable parts (or what they think is most amusing) and then spoon-feed it to the reader. It is a sort of sanitised theme park view of the past, a more grown-up version of the Horrible Histories series, which evokes some of the stench and dirt of the period but leaves the rest out.

Boring English students since time immemorial

Finally, there is “Jane Austen on Love and Romance” - yet another selection of quotes from a famous dead person for those who can't be bothered to read the original novels. Tellingly, the book costs as much as two unabridged Austen paperbacks from any number of discount bookshops.

The book itself seems aimed at a hypothetical upper middlebrow young woman with a Darcy fixation and a cat, who read Sense & Sensibility at university but doesn't want to be seen as too much of a blue-stocking so gets her Austen fix this way instead. The end result is pretty dismal - here we have Emma stripped of its sarcasm and self-revealing irony, Pride And Prejudice without its domestic grind and Northanger Abbey bereft of its satire on naff gothic novels. It proves one thing, though: what pop culture chooses to remember or co-opt often has very little to do with the original.

It also tells us something about the book trade. As we queue up and see these novelty books blinking back at us, next to the till and the reading group fliers, it's easy to see why they get bought. Yet, it's easier still to understand why they never get read much either.

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Alexander Hay

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