As long as the world endures people will itch to hear a story; so there is but small fear the maker of tales will awake one morning to find that no one cares any longer to listen to him. But, unhappily, there is today a growing tendency to divorce literature from fiction, and there was more than a measure of truth in the rebuke I heard administered at a library by a stately and picturesque old lady to a greatly astonished assistant — "I want something to read, and you have nothing here but novels."
The old lady did not mean to imply that there is necessarily nothing to read in a novel; she is a sensible woman and knows her Balzac far too well to make any such mistake. But what she did mean was that among the crowds of new books in gaily colored bindings pushing and jostling each other on the library shelves, there was probably not one she herself would care to read and, after turning over the leaves of some twenty or more, I was fain to agree with her.
With the fall of the leaf — and even as I write, autumn is upon us — comes what used to be known in good old-fashioned days, as the Book Season. Today, the term seems somewhat inadequate, for the Book Season has spread itself out until it practically covers the length of the year, stretching from January to December through the advertisement columns of the newspapers and adding greatly to the sorrows and labors of conscientious reviewers.
And the great bulk of this enormous output is fiction — sad tales, merry tales, tales with a moral, tales without a moral, tales we have heard before and can hear again, tales that are worth telling and tales that are not. Of late the attention of many serious-minded people has been turned to this question of novel writing and novel reading. Sermons have been preached about certain novels (with the immediate result of greatly increasing the publishers' sales and the authors' reputations), while the custodians of Free Libraries are loudly deploring that the books most largely borrowed are works of contemporary fiction.
Now I am quite prepared to be told that a good deal of talent goes to the making of some of these novels, for every week critics are kindly patting authors on the back and scattering compliments with generous hands — "a work of decided promise," "exceptional talent," "a touch of genius," etc. — indeed genius is a term so commonly used that it is only charitable to suppose it has taken unto itself a new meaning and is not the same word we have hitherto consecrated to the giants of the golden age.
In a certain sense, however, the critics are well within their rights, for today we judge literature by the standards of commerce. If a book can fetch a long price we argue (no doubt very sensibly) that it must possess some solid merit. It was in this spirit that a lady audaciously dedicated her novel "To the General Public, the only critic whose opinion is finally worth having," and the audacity was, in this instance, fully justified by success. What an author earns is seemingly of more interest to the greater number of his readers than what he writes — the man who can make money is, they are convinced, possessed of genius as distinct from talent.
The modern novelist is essentially a man of affairs. With admirable discretion he determines to study the public taste rather than observe the higher canons of art, and the public are not as a rule, ungrateful. Anyone could easily give more than a dozen names of writers of popular fiction whose yearly incomes must surely be sources of absorbing interest to the keen-eyed vultures of Somerset House, and whose prosperity has been largely responsible for the birth of that new and lucrative profession, the literary agency.
Books are written today with the avowed object of making money, and, say the authors, it is only the voice of envy that can possibly find fault with their well-deserved success. People will not read a novel merely for its style or literary excellence; they wish to be amused and not instructed; they do not want the author's view of life, but their own commonplace ideas cleverly presented to them as in a mirror, and the older writers with their keen insight into the heart of things, their long kindly moralizings between the acts, their slow-moving pageant to the music of laughter and tears, can hardly hope to hold their own against the latest popular success: as a well-known author once said to me with an engaging air of candor "after all, you know, it is not the best books that sell."
It has sometimes been a matter of curiosity to me what becomes of all these greatly praised novels that are now flooding the market. Do they bring in handsome but unsuspected profits to their creators, or do they only "fret their brief hour upon the stage" to find their way at last to that Gehenna of writers, the shop of the remainder-man?
I have often wondered that some author, panting after realism, has not made a better use of the remainder-man, for he would serve as a handy villain, cheapening books (as is his habit) until he finally brings them down to the lowest depth of degradation and they are sold, by weight as waste paper. But he has not, I believe, as yet found a place in the fiction gallery of well-known characters where a new dress for an old friend would often prove very attractive.
Once upon a time, I myself "read" for a publishing firm of high repute, and I was then more often struck with the imitative faculty of the writers than with their originality. So many books bore a more than strong resemblance to each other, while how many plots have I not found to be boldly taken (without acknowledgment) from the French!
I especially remember one clever scene that held me by its force and power, and yet was hauntingly reminiscent of something I had read before, like some old tune to which I could not, for the moment, give a name. Re-reading my favorite Balzac that night as a mental rest-cure after the labors of the day, I came across the scene, to my relief as well as my disgust, word for word and character for character.
This I admit was an exceptionally bad case, but similar instances are to be found, and even reviewers have been sometimes caught napping. Some of the books that passed through my hands were of a wholly different character. Well written and replete with pretty fancies they only needed a known name to help them to success.
But the fiction-loving public has but little fancy for such delicate miniature painting. It greatly prefers the bold outlines of the scene painter or the garish colors of the poster, so it was clearly impossible to risk failure by offering goods for sale for which there would be but little or no demand: I could only be grateful to the authors for the loan of their manuscripts. Sometimes one of these same books eventually found a publisher, and I would watch its fate with almost paternal interest, but I cannot recall a single instance where one of them was fortunate enough to find a public.
I had occasion a few months ago to ask for a novel at a well-managed lending library. The author is a man of some distinction, who (though he is not one of those successful writers who sell their books by the quarter-million) can claim readers to the extent of some odd thousands. The novel I wanted is one of bis best, and I was a little surprised when the manager told me he would try to get it for me, but as it was an old book I might have to wait a little time.
"An old book!" I said, "why it only came out the other day."
The manager corrected me; the book must have been out at least a twelve-month, and then in answer to my indignant "Well, what of that?" leaned over the counter in friendly fashion to give me a true history of the life of a novel.
It was growing dusk, the shop for a wonder was empty, and the gaslight shone on the backs of some thousand or more brightly-bound volumes that crowded the shelves and were plied high upon the counter — some with the name of a customer written on a narrow strip of paper that hung from between their leaves like the tongue from a thirsty dog's mouth, others as yet unclaimed. A sense of depression came over me as he poured out the wisdom of his past and vast experience for my future guidance.
"A year," he said, "is the length of a book's life — of a novel, I mean. If it sells at all, it sells at once, for people will not read old books however good the books may be. They only care for the new ones, and it does not seem to matter what they are, if only they are new. For my own part I would far rather read some of the old ones — a dozen years ago or more, better books were brought out. But you cannot get people so much as to look at them, for they judge all books by the dates on the title-page, and so. as I said before, by the end of a twelvemonth the average book is practically dead."
I looked round at the bookshelves, filled (if this intelligent young man is to be believed) with the Doomed, and behind each volume I seemed to see the pale anxious face of the author listening dejectedly to the discouraging story. I named two literary artists — "Their books still sell, though they are at least a dozen years old, and yet they can hardly be described as popular authors."
He admitted that their books still sold, but explained that these writers are now classics. "They have never had what you may call a big sale, but they always go on selling. And there is nothing today between a classic and a popular success. A book has simply no chance at all unless it is well pushed by the publisher and the newspapers, and even then it may not go. The truth is there are far too many of them, and if there should happen to be a good one among them by a new writer, as often as not it gets swamped among the rubbish, and some one or other helps himself to the best of it for his own book. The publishers are partly to blame — they flood the market with indifferent stuff, and then are surprised they cannot get rid of it."
He spoke with authority and with the air of one who politely declines further argument on a subject of which he is a past master; so I left the shop and went out into the mild darkness of a late February afternoon.
Was he right, this intelligent young man who so ably represented the purely commercial side of literature, and beside whose experience my own was but as of a dilettante amateur? I could at least conscientiously say that the publishing house with which I had once been connected had never "flooded the market with indifferent stuff," but remembering those over-crowded bookshelves, I was not wholly prepared to give the statement the lie direct. In the old times (to which some of us look back with regret) a publisher's motto was "Few but fit," a motto then easy enough to follow. For there were giants in those days-long books that came to stay; and to these we now turn as the standard of comparison by which we judge our writers of modern action. Possibly, in so doing we make a very great mistake.
In that faraway past, novels were mostly read by cultured persons with a taste for letters, and they were fortunate in finding writers who could give them what is perhaps best described as literary fiction. But even in matters of art, demand will create supply, and the times have changed. Today every one reads, and so, almost unconsciously, popular writers have learned to be content to measure their wit, not by the monuments of classic eloquence but by the intellect of their readers.
A noted novelist is said to have stated that his only ambition was to "reach the great heart of the people." Now to reach the great heart of the people it is before all things necessary to learn the language of the people, and in England the speech of our mixed population is neither picturesque nor poetical. If any one feels inclined to dispute the truth of this statement, let him mingle for an hour or so with a middle-class holiday crowd, or study the romances that find the greatest favor in the workroom or the kitchen, for this is the public that has to be considered — and seriously considered too — by the writer who proposes to make his fortune out of fiction.
I once asked a country traveller to tell me who were the largest buyers of certain popular novels, and the surprising answer came: "Well, publicans buy them for their wives." Nor do I believe the statement to be incorrect.
This curious half-educated public has its own prejudices, its own opinions, its own code of morals, and is as widely divorced in sympathy from the intelligent workman who reads for self-improvement, as it is from the scholarly man of letters who frankly deplores the present condition of things. It is oddly sensitive on many points, has a fixed conviction that the author is poking fun at it if it does not understand all that he is saying, and hotly resents any quotation in a foreign language as possibly concealing some evil thought.
But sentiment and plenty of it, above all religious sentimentality, never fails to make its appeal to the great heart of the people, and to lash the vices of the rich with a nine-thonged whip while glibly praising the virtues of the poor is an almost sure road to success.
There is an enormous mass of class prejudice among the people that takes the place of an elemental critical faculty, and all writers of fiction would do well to bear this in mind. For this strange, semi-merged, all-powerful and ever-increasing public, is, in the matter of books, wonderfully conservative.
Let an author once get firm hold of their affections and he is safe. The cold wind of neglect will never blow upon him, nor is there any fear of his audience melting away to join the crowds that may gather around a newer showman with more gaily painted puppets. If only their old favorite will still speak to them in the style that years ago made him their hero, so long will his faithful public give him their ears. They want no new thing, but are content with the same lovers, the same villains, the same adventures, and the same sentiments they have already known and approved, and new-comers, wandering by chance on to the old pitch, often find it very hard to get an honest hearing.
These are the books to which my friend the librarian had referred as the popular successes, and popular successes they undoubtedly are, but to old-fashioned people nourished on old-fashioned literary prejudices they are apt to prove a trifle disconcerting.
Were the old standards wrong, or has fiction (as we knew it) become a dead art? Is the length of a book's life to be strictly limited to twelve short months, or is there still more reasonable hope left that it may live on to charm successions of readers in the years to come, instead of being flung on one side like an old glove as soon as the date on the title-page shows that it can be no longer described as a new novel?
If the librarian's tale be true, then who is to blame — the authors, the publishers, or the public? A writer in a weekly paper has boldly laid the whole of the burden upon the shoulders of the authors. They begin, he tells us, by doing their best, and a vast proportion of "first books'' now published show some promise. Then the authors get into harness, adjust their collars, and write for bread and butter, throwing aside their early ideals as useless, unmarketable lumber.
It is never wise to argue with an expert; but though this may be true we cannot think it sufficiently accounts for the dearth of purely literary work put forward in the guise of fiction. The public (as the lady novelist boldly said) is the ultimate court of appeal, on the time-honored principle that the man who pays the fiddler calls the tune, and today the English public are calling for commonplace tunes. In the island of Saints better counsels prevail, and we have there welcomed the birth of a new school of literature, producing delicate work that has in it (or so we believe) the strength to live. But so far it has not sought expression in a novel. Still, there is every reason to hope that from Ireland may yet arise a mighty maker of tales who will give us a Gaelic Comédie Humaine and so revive, in all its copious leisurely splendor, the art of fiction. When at last this giant shall come in all the fulness of his strength he will surely not lack a multitude of hearers.
I have been speaking lately on this very subject of modern fiction to a ripe critic.
"Some of it is clever" I suggested tentatively.
"Yes, far too clever" was his answer. "You want something more than mere cleverness if a book is to live."
I knew that he was right. The art concealing the art is lost to us today, and talent is all too often blatantly self-assertive, and over-anxious to lead off the applause: the mere pretence of modesty is, for the moment, hopelessly out of fashion.
"But after all, what does it matter to you," my critic went on after a brief pause, "whether a novel lives one year or twenty? You do not propose to write a book, and all these authors, I do not doubt, can take very good care of themselves."
I thought of the rows of doomed volumes — consumptives awaiting the doctor's verdict — and this time I was: not so sure that he was right.
And on one point he was most certainly wrong; for I have a very strong personal interest in this matter. Everyone before they die, says a wise old saw, should plant a tree, have a child, and write a book. I must plead guilty to having neglected the first and second of these old-fashioned duties, but I have accomplished the third and last — I have written a book.
Between the wearisome and manifold labors of the day I have found time — slowly and with infinite pains — to write a romance, but not even my best and closest friend has ever suspected me of such an indiscretion. Line by line, and page by page the book has grown, until it has become as a very part of myself; its making has been the loving work of years, and on the very day I paid that discouraging visit to the lending library I had written the last words of the last chapter.
Long ago I gave it a name — "The Silent Feet of Mary" — and when a recent novel bearing the title "The Brown Eyes of Mary" was published, I actually felt resentful, as though the author had wantonly infringed my private law of copyright. That I should change the title of my book was clearly impossible. Mary had lived so long with me, I had grown so well accustomed to her presence and "the beat of her unseen feet," that to have christened her afresh would have seemed nothing short of sacrilege. Her silent feet had followed me so faithfully down busy streets and along lonely ways; had paused when I paused, hurried when I hurried, had been in truth as the noiseless echo of my own.
That the fiction-reading public would ever appreciate Mary I could have no reasonable hope. She had none of the qualities that make for success, for judged by the standard of contemporary criticism she was neither witty, amusing, nor audacious; her life had been passed among quiet ways and pleasant places, and she was not the heroine of any notorious adventures — who would care to follow the tread of her silent feet?
A memory of the books I had urged the great publishing house to accept came back to me, and I knew only too well that they were none of them of kin to Mary. A dozen or more years ago she might have hoped to claim a few readers, but today she could look for nothing better than one short year of neglect on library shelves before she was finally sold as waste paper.
To such shame she should never come; so, after a long spell of indecision, on a dull sultry summer afternoon I slowly burned the manuscript page by page in an empty grate, until a smouldering heap of charred paper was all that was left to me of a most dear and constant companion. As the smoke filled the room half blinding and choking me in the hot heavy air, my old friend the critic walked in and asked me what I was doing.
"I have been burning a book — a novel."
He is not a man of many words, but he took his pipe out of his mouth and spoke. All that he said, it might not be seemly to repeat, but the gist of the whole matter was that I had done a very wise thing — that it was a pity other writers did not offer up their first-born in a voluntary sacrifice — that fiction was in a parlous state, and it was highly improbable that I could have done anything to improve It.
"After all, the public are the real offenders." he ended, "for it is they who are mainly responsible for the flood of fiction," and I think, Mr. Urban. that he spoke the truth.
~ The End ~