The New English Library was a publishing house in Great Britain which was most active in the late 1960s and 1970s. It was in touch with the zeitgeist of the period, which consisted of heartfelt angst about Britain's perceived post-war, post-Suez slide down the world rankings, both as industrial power and as a Great Power. As the Empire faded and more and more former colonies achieved independence, Britain's inability to re-invent itself as a post-imperial nation that was at ease with itself began to show in a myriad of social and economic problems. The optimism of the 1960s began to be replaced with a deep malaise and pessimism about the future, which right-wing and authoritarian elements put down to the pernicious permissiveness and licentiousness of the 1960's, combined with perceived over-powerful and greedy trade unions "holding the nation to ransom". This perception of a country in deep social mire was gleefully fanned by right-wing papers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express, who battened on issues such as teen gangs of the skinhead variety and on the growing issue of football hooliganism as evidence of the country going to Hell in a handcart.
The NEL's lurid and explicit novels, many of them (on the face of it) penny-dreadful potboilers written by hacks, exploited this climate by tapping into the morbid fantasies of "respectable" people who feared being murdered in their beds by out-of-control hoodlums, and found a wide and receptive readership. NEL books were often set 20 Minutes into the Future about dystopian Britains where a combination of permissive parenting, ineffectual policing, and a liberal, do-gooder legal system with more consideration for the rights of the criminal than the victim had allowed violent and anarchic gangs to flourish unchecked. Their activities were described in explicit violent and sexual detail of a sort that not even the permissive '60s had allowed to be seen in print, earning the NEL the nickname "Nasty, Explicit, and Lurid" — ironic, given what they often railed against.
The NEL's output covered all the bete noires of the right-wing establishment: skinheads, teen gangs, uncontrolled non-white immigration, Football Hooligans, biker gangs, greedy trade unions, and liberal politicians acting as willing or unaware dupes for Moscow's diabolical plan to destroy the West from within before moving in to "restore order", as well as having side-swipes at pagans, Wiccans, atheists, and others who threatened the traditional British way of life. Looking back with hindsight, it is almost as if somebody was deliberately setting up Nightmare Fuel for the bourgeoisie as well as a stern warning from Nanny not to eat cheese before bedtime. It was like reading the Chick Tracts recast as moral fables for our age, but with Satan replaced with more secular bogeymen.
Also much like the Chick Tracts, they attracted a cult readership who appreciated them as literature while either not buying into, or even outright mocking, the implicit social and political message that only strong government and a Strong Leader could save us.
The people behind NEL got their wish for strong authoritarian government to redress the permissive poisoned legacy of the '60s in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher was elected PM. Interestingly enough, the NEL declined in sales and popularity during the '80s and the imprint was closed down as an independent entity, although its publishing list was bought by Hodder and some of the better novels are still in print today. The original books are now sought-after on the second-hand market, and a brisk trade in them carries on today.
It was not all right-wing warnings of apocalypse dressed up as lurid adventure. Authors such as Michael Moorcock also wrote for NEL because they needed the cash, and sought to subvert the message where they could.
This is not to be confused with the New American Library, a rather more respectable and up-market publishing house founded in 1948 as the North American imprint of Penguin Books, and which largely devotes itself to reprints of out-of-copyright classical works and the sort of literary novel that stands in danger of winning prestigious literary prizes. The NAL is still a thriving concern today, and in fact boasts a long roster of literary award-winners.
This company's works provide examples of:
- Author Tract: Right-wing polemic dressed as sensationalist stories.
- Straw Character: Name a bogeyman of a '60s or '70s British conservative, and at least one has probably featured as a villain in an NEL book.
- Torture Porn: Lots of it, with a vague moral message that of course this is not right and perpetrators will pay the price. Just so the reader was no doubt at all that this was wrong, the torture was described in great detail.