Fires of Youth by Charles Wlliams (James Lincoln Collier), Magnet Books #309, 1960

This has to be the most curious case of fine literature packaged as sleaze in all of vintage sleazecore history.  Back in August 09, I had talked about it some here.  The fuller story is on Lynn Monroe’s website, noting the basic narrative of this short novel’s life:

In 1962, the Hungarian-born, naturalized-British author Arthur Koestler announced the Koestler Prize, “to alleviate the desolation of culture” for inmates of Her Majesty’s prisons. Prizes of 400 pounds were to be awarded for art, music and literature. The British government endorsed the plan, and the panel for the literature prize included well-regarded British authors Henry Green, J.B. Priestley, V.S. Pritchett and Philip Toynbee. A manuscript called YOUNG AND SENSITIVE by a Dartmoor inmate named Don Robson was awarded the first prize. As Koestler’s publisher at Hutchinson & Co., Sir Robert Lusty was “glad to have the first opportunity of considering Mr. Robson’s prize-winning script. As soon as it arrived I read it personally and at once shared the enthusiasm expressed by the panel of judges. At this time I also met with Mr. Robson (who had completed his sentence) and was much impressed that a not altogether articulate young man should have been able to write so sincere and moving a story.”

Robson had plagarized, while in prison, an obscure American paperback from an obscure sleaze company magnet, Fires of Youth by Charles Williams, aka James Lincoln Collier, who was unable to sell the sex-filled manuscript anywhere else.

A year after Young and Sensitive was published, and Robson was hailed as a great new British talent in contemporary literature, a reader happened to pick the book up and found it curious that it was quite similar to the cheap American paperback he’d read…

Robson didn’t deny it and paid the money back and the literary scandal ensued. The nearly illiterate ex-incarcerated criminal had hookwinked the best minds of Her Majesty’s elite high art writers.  Surely, the pressure on Robson to come up with a second novel, and being unable to write anything let alone in the same voice, must have been trying on Robson — reminds me of the situation in the Showtime series, Californication, where a teenage girl steals the main character’s manuscript for a new novel, retypes it, retitled it Fucking and Punching, gets an agent, gets a major deal, goes on tour, becomes famous in the literary world…she has blackmailed the writer, Hank Moody, with statutory rape, since he slept with her and had no idea she was only 16 (she claims he was her first too)…anyway, many people note how similar her novel is to Moody’s, and when she is unable to write anything worthwhile as a sophomore novel, it becomes apparent to her manager and publisher that she did not write the book…and in fear of being labeled a thief and ridiculed, she breaks down…

I can only imagine what Robson must have gone through when his sham came to light…and what his publisher went through, embarrassed before the literary community…

Then again, profit becomes before saving face.  With all this new-found-attention to the book, sales naturally jumped.

But who was Charles Williams?  It wasn’t the Charles Williams of Gold Medal fame (and later Collier said the publisher chose the pen name). Magnet Books had gone out of business within a year. The New York Times ran an article about the search for Williams, and James Collier, who was now publishing YA books under his own name, saw the piece and went, “Hey, that be my pen name and ’tis my novel!”

And so an interesting tidbit in 20th Century literary plagarism was born almost as good as the question of whether or not Shakespeare wrote ever play and poem attributed to him, whether or not Truman Captoe actually wrote To Kill a Mockingbird for his pal Harper Lee…

Penguin re-issued the novel to the commercial trade with Collier’s real name on the byline…

The actual Magnet edition is now rare and goes for a high price among collectors.

But what of the text, this once tawdry paperback that the Limey limelights hailed as a major new voice of English letters?

Fires of Youth is a first-person coming-of-age narrative, told by a young and sensitive, uneducated and poor fellow who lives with his cantankerous, bigoted, woman-hating father.  All women, young and old, are tramps and whores and no good, and his father tells him to steer clear of them, but of course he doesn’t…they live near a college, and there are college girls all over, drinking the the bars and running around looking for fun. And here our narrator is, a good-looking kid the college girls notice…

‘What do you think of us college girls?’

‘I don’t know. You know more about that.’

‘You must have thought about girls […] Most of these little virgins will give you a tough time,’ she laughed. ‘It’s the only time they can let themselves go, when they’re away from home.’  She paused, then said: ‘They’re a crowd of dirty little bitches, that’s what they are. Dirty little bitches.’ (p. 40)

There are enough sexual situtaions, talk, and innuendo to qualify this as a 1960 sleaze paperback, although handled in a realistic, mature way for the setting and era.

The narrator soon goes from complete innocence when it comes to women, to jaded weariness as he experiences one after the other, like college girl Angie, whom he decides to stop seeing because she amounts to trouble: ‘Thinking about trouble isn’t the same as getting into it’ (p. 80).

His life is quite simple: doing odd jobs with his father to keep afloat, like painting barns or fixing plumbing, and then kicking back with a six-pack at the end of the day. It’s a good read on many levels, as a work of literature and even a sleaze title.

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