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2004-2005 Visiting Fellows

Nicole Matthews
Liverpool John Moores University

My two-week visit to Princeton in April 2004 revolved around the work of Helen MacInnes, an immensely popular spy fiction writer who from the early 1940s through her death in 1985 produced novels which regularly featured in the New York Times bestseller list and sold in the millions internationally. The Princeton holdings of MacInnes' papers include not only manuscripts but, more important for my work, correspondence, notes, reviews and publicity for her books. The MacInnes Papers offer a sample of materials - particularly ephemeral publicity material and unindexed reviews - which are extraordinarily difficult to obtain without access to the kind of rich archive held at Princeton. Since papers relating to authors of popular fiction are rarely collected and preserved, the MacInnes Papers provide a rare insights into mass market publishing.

My aim was to use the case study of McInnes' novels to open up three research questions. Firstly, I was interested to explore the under-researched area of twentieth century publishers' publicity, and in particular book covers. Very little has been written about the way that publishers advertise and publicise their books, with the work that has been done on book covers emerging primarily from art and design history, and focussing on exceptional, creative and aesthetically rewarding covers. My hope was to use the book covers and publishers' publicity included in the MacInnes Papers to map the changing way in which the publishing industry marketed popular fiction in the post-war period. Given MacInnes' origins as a Scot, her residence in the US and her world-wide audience I also hoped to compare publishers' publicity emerging from different national contexts, particularly the US and the UK.

Among the most interesting materials in MacInnes' scrapbooks of publicity were extracts from the serialisation of her second book, Assignment in Brittany, in the Saturday Evening Post. The range of illustrations used alongside the condensed text in this serialisation, and their divergences from the covers of her novels, underscored the importance of thinking through the material and visual qualities of publications when attempting to understanding the meaning and consumption of popular narratives. In particular, these images highlighted the variable and sometimes contradictory address to gendered audiences that publishers and marketers adopted in publicising MacInnes' work.

My second interest during my trip to Princeton was MacInnes' British publisher from the early 1950s, William Collins and Sons. Collins was one of Britain's largest independent publishers during this period, yet there have been no detailed institutional histories compiled of the organisation. The firm was particularly well known for its energetic global sales practices, and my hope was that the MacInnes Papers would offer a case study in Collins' use of publicity and marketing. The papers did indeed include some very useful samples of Collins' advertising of MacInnes and book covers of British editions, but the correspondence between MacInnes, her British publishers and her agents was patchy, allowing me a less comprehensive view of Collins than I had hoped.

While I found less official correspondence than I expected within the MacInnes Papers, one of my most useful discoveries was two hundred fan letters, mostly from North American readers, responding to her earlier publications. These fan letters gave intriguing insights into the way that the responses of fans were closely linked to the packaging and marketing of the novels. Quite a number of writers responded to the image of the young MacInnes used alongside interviews and reviews, some even admitting to have written on the basis of author photos without ever having read any of the novels! These fan letters also highlighted the gendered responses to her novels, and the way in fantasies of travel and nostalgia for Europe were important to her readership.

A large part of my time in Princeton involved analysing the huge collection of book reviews compiled in MacInnes' scrapbooks and folders. These reviews provided insights into the strategies used by MacInnes' US and UK publishers' to promote her work, and also offer exemplary readings of the novels that I argue play an important role in shaping the reception of the books. Again, these reviews, and particularly those in US newspapers, highlighted the role of book covers and associated visual material used to promote the books in shaping reception of the books. One intriguing thematic bringing together reviews, book covers and fan letters was the iconography of the mountains, and the associated description of MacInnes' work as clean and elevated in tone.

My final interest in the MacInnes' Papers was to search for evidence that MacInnes, her publishers, reviewers and readers saw MacInnes' novels as linked to the booming post- war tourist industry. The Papers provided me with overwhelming evidence to support this claim. Prior to my visit to Princeton I had uncovered correspondence between MacInnes and Billy Collins in which the publisher encouraged the author to set her novels in European tourist destinations to promote sales. I found similar correspondence between MacInnes and her US publisher, Harcourt Brace and World.

One particularly overt example of the linkages between MacInnes' novels and the European tourist industry was a mutually complimentary exchange of letters between MacInnes and the director of the Swiss Tourist Bureau. More systematic evidence for this link can be found in the way reviews from the late 1950s began to see describe MacInnes' novels as travel guides, 'Baedeckers' or travelogues. To my surprise, this view of the novels emerged earlier and more prominently in North American reviews of the novels than in British reviews.

The research I undertook has Princeton has already proved to be immensely useful to several current projects, including a colloquium which I coordinated on popular fiction and tourism and the development of an edited collection entitled 'Judging a Book by its Cover.' My research on Collins has been presented at the twenty first annual British Book Trade History conference in Edinburgh and is to be reproduced in the Print Networks series, published by Oak Knoll Press and the British Library. I am very grateful for the financial assistance of the Friends of the Princeton University Library which has enabled me to undertake this research, and to the generous (and ongoing) help of the staff at the Rare Books and Special Collections.


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