"People write too many novels now, and they write hastily and badly ... Novel-writing has become a trade; it is no longer an art. Writers ought not to live by literature. It should be a staff, not a crutch. The moment an art is pursued for gain, it is lost".
- Literary Notes, Otago Witness, Issue 2515, 28 May 1902, Page 66
She probably should have let that lie, but she nevertheless expanded on the comment later in 1902 in an extended article in the weekly American periodical Littell's Living Age - an astonishing rant whose targets include bad novels, cheap periodicals, writers who write for money, bad proofing and printing, sex in fiction, the vulgarity of the reading public, the educational system, steam power, advertisements, people who write novels too young, and the weaker works of famous novelists. Oh, and she thinks "the great Boer War a lesson to the world in gentleness, magnanimity and self-restraint, and an era in human progress".
A Plea for the Silence of the Novelist
Once I said in my haste, following an august example, that it would be a matter of small moment if no more novels were written for the next fifty years. On leisurely reflection I am inclined to endorse that opinion, though half a century appears an excessive term of silence to impose upon our vast army of Scheherazades, many of whom, like the Arabian story-teller, tax their powers of invention and stimulate their flagging energies to the utmost to gain respite, if not actually from death—by starvation—at least from financial dissolution. But no more novels, say for twenty years, during which a generation might be reared with a taste for something nobler than novels, or at all events for the fine works of fiction that already exist and are so seldom read; or even for ten or five years, what a boon that might be!
It is not that all the tales have been told; they had all been told many times over long before letters were invented. They always will be told in some form or other in prose or in verse, in speech or in writing, till the end of time, and they will always, these same old tales, be pleasant to tell and pleasant to hear till the end of time, because they tell of things that can never grow old, of the relation of man to man, and of the relation of man to the seen and to the unseen that surrounds and moulds him. Also of the relation of man to his time, for, though you will say times change, yet man's relation to his time is constant. But surely man changes? Man never changes; he takes polish and mould, but continues the same forever; the elementary passions are inalterable; every subtlest, most exalted emotion of which we are capable is based upon them. But manners change? Aye, truly, but effect no alteration in the eternal human; they are but lines fretted upon durable stone or letters cut in beech rind, leaving the rock or tree beneath as before. Still, this perpetual changing pageant of manners is among the most variety-giving elements in the novelist's material, and the nice adjustment of the eternal human to his casual environment makes no small part of the literary craftsman's skill.
No; the tales may be told and re-told from every point of view and in every variety of detail and amplification, with every embroidery of thought and fancy and manifold beauty of setting, and never fail to charm, nor, if rightly told, to edify and instruct; though amusement and not edification is the novelist's proper aim.
A good fiction writer must have a specially organized brain, of which in the nature of things there can be but few; yet our tale-writers are innumerable. And, while the most gifted do their art injustice by hasty and therefore crude production, the Press teems with novelettes, newspaper-corner serials made by the yard, and magazine stories with nothing to recommend them beyond a knack of putting together what arrests the flaccid attention of vacuous and brainless indolence, unable to endure a second without external diversion from inward monotony. It is weariness to think of these productions; the sight ot the empty stuff piled on railway bookstalls produces moral and mental nausea. Some of the cheap periodicals fluttering on the stalls consist entirely of short stories, rarely enlivened by a spark of wit, a gleam of fancy, a glow of humor or a touch of life. The same may be said of many six-shilling and three-aud-sixpenny novels turned off at the rate of three or four a year, made to sell and for nothing else. Some of these are very clever, many give token of much undeveloped power stifled by haste. Many show considerable knowledge, though rarely of human character; others display a smart style, a ready buffoonery, or a pert flippancy in touching subjects that should only be approached with reverence and delicacy, which passes for wit and humor; while others, clever in a way and always fluent, win favor by sheer vulgarity and indecency. It must be confessed that a large proportion of this great flood of novels are well put together; they show a technical skill which accentuates their inherent want of vitality. They give token of special training. Lessons in the art of writing fiction are actually given to literary aspirants by professors, who make a living, or at least turn an honest penny, by this singular trade. It was a sad moment for literature when the notion that novel-writing was a lucrative craft first got about, thanks partly to papers by James Payn, suggesting the training of average middle-class youth for this simple, inexpensive and well-paid profession; partly to the genial and. large-hearted Sir Walter Besant, who never tired of representing the literary profession, and especially fiction, as a profession, like any other, to be learnt and practised as an exclusive means of gaining a livelihood by the moderately endowed, such as swell the lower ranks of the medical, legal, and clerical professions. A man with no marked aptitude for his special profession and of general ability even beneath the average, may still be a respectable and useful lawyer, doctor, soldier, or clergyman, great numbers of which are needed to carry on the ordinary affairs of life, though exceptional power and even genius is requisite in the higher walks of these vocations. But, while the rank and file of most callings can do very well with industry, training, and moderate intelligence, no one wants a mediocre novel, poem, or picture; unlike the hard-working doctor in a difficulty, the hard-working novel-writer cannot call in a recognized head of the profession to disentangle a plot, supply a true conception of character, or give sparkle and music to a dull and dragging style. And a feeble novel is a serious evil.
No one should be trained to write novels and nothing else; the best training for a novelist, after the school of life, is the exercise of some other profession, and of course such knowledge of literature as is included in what is called a liberal education, the more of such knowledge the better. Nor should any write fiction in cold blood or of set purpose as a toil or task, for joy is necessary to artistic creation, but only when impelled by some strong inward compulsion, when he has characters to depict, a story to tell, or the need of disburdening himself of some message or imparting some irresistible gaiety concealed in the story. It is said that but for the need of money few would write, paint, sing, or act at all. Rather it seems that a strong bent to any art or craft creates a necessity for its active exercise that flags with time, more or less according to individual temperament, and is quickened by the stimulus of material and other rewards such as fall to the successful artist. When the stimulus is too keen and jaded or out-worked powers are spurred to over-activity by actual need of money for the day's wants—as is usually the case when literature is the only source of income— the work must be poor, the artist's talent enfeebled and his genius gradually atrophied. That spontaneity is a first condition of artistic creation, and that fine imaginative work can only be produced in an atmosphere of freedom and mental repose, is well known.
Still greater is the deterioration of art when pursued for gain. Money for its own sake, to furnish luxury and gratify pride, is a venomous thing; nothing corrodes so surely and debases so effectually. When a man sets himself to build up a fortune by honest commercial or industrial enterprise, he does no ill tiling, providing that he plays the game fairly. He uses special powers to the end to which they are fitted and benefits mankind as he goes; his joy is not so much in possessing wealth, which he may apply to noble and unselfish ends, as in playing a skilful and exciting game and exercising conscious powers of no mean order; It is well for the community that wealth should be produced; it is his part; his delight is in doing it well. Though even commerce with no end but gain is corrupting.
But when an artist, whose part is to minister to man's higher nature; to reveal the beauty of the visible world and of the relations between man and man and to trace out the hidden springs of action; and, in the novelist's case, to furnish wholesome amusement through the medium of imagination, fancy, emotion, and reflection; to turn fine pointed satire upon human folly; to create heart-easing mirth by a genial presentment of sudden incongruities of character, circumstance, incident, and conduct; to inspire high aims, pure ideals and noble emotion; to widen our sympathies and enlarge our charity; to create living human characters and represent them in action not too much above or too much below reality, too commonplace or too elevated, and by the power of art to present a just and accurate, though never literal, picture of human life as it is, has been, or might be—when one so charged with high and sweet responsibility sets up gain as the first enki of art, it Is a kind of simony and the work must deteriorate. Of course fiction may furnish unwholesome amusement and evil mirth, inspire vile ambitions, ignoble ideals and base emotions, narrow our sympathies and destroy our charity, and yet present a fairly accurate picture of human life and character; but the picture will never be complete, the wit and humor never quite honest, the life and character necessarily one-sided; the writer's art and genius will be lessened and weakened by his moral limitations. Because all things evil tend to death and all things good are In the direction of vitality; because the main tendency of human life and character Is right and noble, and because It is against human nature in the main to love what is morally bad and degrading. For God certainly made the world and he made man in his own image.
Yet he who ministers at the altar should live by the altar. Truly; and the loaves and fishes were ungrudgingly distributed: but those who came for the sake of them were sternly rebuked.
Some of the best work in the world is done gratuitously; roughly speaking, all political and public work in Englaud is unpaid. Nor can such emoluments as fall to the lot of public men ever be a main object with those who take office. A considerable part of every medical man's work is gratuitous; pay is not what attracts men to the two Services; those who devote themselves to the higher walks of literature, to philosophy, to scholarship, and to scientific research know well that in doing so they turn their backs upon wealth. On the other hand many fine intellects are lost to science, philosophy, learning, and literature, as well as to the arts, by the obligation of a bread-earning profession. No doubt these callings might be adequately endowed by the richest nation upon earth. And why should not fiction be endowed?
Broadly stated, the present overflow of fiction is characterized by clever mechanism and mediocrity, facility of execution and poverty of mutter, the natural result of inadequately gifted writers taking fiction as a lucrative career; a rarer characteristic is excellent material crudely worked out, leaving great possibilities of character and situation undeveloped, the equally natural result of haste. Everybody knows how to write novels in these days but nobody can. In the same way everybody can paint pictures yet nobody does—or next to nobody. For writers must keep abreast of the tide; nobody has time to read what few have time to write. Even printing is now too hurried to be accurate. Authors beg to be allowed to correct their work and often in vain. Such trifles as unverified quotations, punctuation throwing whole periods out of meaning, lines inserted in wrong order, words transposed, false spelling, the endless array of compositor's blunders and emendations worse than blunders, nre nothing to the man in the train, the woman on the pier, the boy in tbe baker's cart. Really fine works sometimes bristle with misprints rarely noticed by reviewers. The unkempt disarray of the reading vulgar seems to reflect itself upon works of power and distinction and the dignity hitherto associated with literature to be falling into the general decadence of the period.
Another note of hurried fiction and one still more significant of intellectual decay and degraded taste, is a lack of reticence concerning all that portion of our animal life upon which civilized intercourse agrees to be, except under grave necessity, entirely silent, a silence stricter and more characteristic of Teutonic than of Latin races and literatures, and most of all characteristic of our own.
It is not easy to account for the present undoubted vogue for what is so foreign to English character and taste. No doubt there is a corresponding laxity of morals Just now in some classes, but not enough laxity to be an adequate cause. After all, it is a question of taste, more than of morals, and agrees with the decline of dignity and reverence and the free and easy, uncourteous manners that rob social intercourse of charm and life of beauty in these democratic days. This taint, insensibly growing upon us all and lowering all our standards, in morals as well as in taste, together with other notes of the intellectual decadence of the agelove of ugliness and horror, and delight in all that degrades and is painful, absurdly called realism; as if nothing can be real that is not revolting or natural but dirt—this taint, it may be hoped, will not permanently stain our literature. In part a recoil from early Victorian prudery, it may be greatly due to excessive production: straining after what is new and startling, and then after what is newer and more startling, is inevitable and perhaps unconscious in the effort to attract attention in such a crowd. "The most daring writer of the day," Is a selling epithet; "grapples with the problem of sex," another. As if sex were the newest modern discovery and had not discomfited Adam long before it put up the sale of the last novel. People will soon be tired, if not incapable, of being shocked by anything, but not before many minds have been indelibly stained and filled with ugliness and many lives made less tolerable than they might have been.
Yet realism, vulgarity, and everything that is third-rate in thought and style and subject, in all that is essential to art, will always attract the majority of readers, because in days of cheap education and cheap reading matter the majority will consist of the uncultured and unthinking, of those whose mental powers are atrophied by disuse or mechanical (not manual) toil and monotonous occupations, and of those who are just cultured enough to set some value upon letters and intellectual gifts, without being able to follow or grasp their measure; of such as read papers full of incoherent snippings from every writer under the sun and often almost meaningless without the context, under the impression that they are nourishing and training their minds. We all know what the populace loves in drama and music, and how insensible to beauty the masses appear to be, also what a perennial charm they find in vulgarity. It is doubtful if an education that can, by the necessity of things, go little farther than teaching to read print and manuscript, to reckon, and to write, is a benefit; it unquestionably creates a demand for literature that is not literature.
A far better education might be given without reading or writing by committing orally to children's memories passages of the Bible and Shakespeare and Milton and ballad poetry, and in like manner teaching history and things that bear upon practical life. Then, if the use of steam, except in simple domestic matters, could be suddenly and irrecoverably forgotten by the whole human race, and all but very simple machinery made useless— but this, perhaps, is Utopian.
Still, the charm of a world undefiled by advertisements, except the necessary and picturesque signs—like the bush over the wine-shop—suitable to unlettered, but not unintelligent, working people, and unvexed by the yell of the newspaper fiend, the peace of it! In sober earnest, knowledge gained more from observation and bodily experience, from the seen, the touched, the heard, and less from printed books and chalked blackboards, would tend to a far completer mental and physical development of children, especially of those of hand- and body-workers. Mind and body would act and re-act more harmoniously one on the other, brain and muscle would be better balanced; the long superiority of the clerk or penworker over the hand- and body-worker would disappear. The craftsman would approach the artist's level, the anaemic book student, half blind and ignorant of all that concerns the art of living, be known no more. Reading and writing, instead of being the earliest, might well be later rungs in the ladder of learning.
For the chief perceptible result of general primary education is a generation of ignorant and unthinking people, to whom the power of deciphering printed words is a doubtful boon. On the other hand, we have in the field a great army, every man in the ranks of which can read and write, an army of men whose abstention from every kind of excess and violence, hitherto deemed inevitable accompaniments to war and whose humanity and self-restraint under difficult circumstances, besides filling all thinking minds with amazement and admiration, have helped to make the great Boer War a lesson to the world in gentleness, magnanimity and self-restraint, and an era in human progress. Many other causes, the greater care now given to the soldier's moral and physical welfare, the superior class from which he is drawn and the possibility the veldt affords of keeping drink from him, may be assigned for this; but the fact that he can read and write must not be ignored. For must we be too severe upon the scant benefit the civilian populace derives from reading, when we remember the splendid qualities of our reading and writing soldiers, who are at the present moment cheerily laying down their lives and facing every species of suffering and privation for us. But in addition to their mastery of the alphabet soldiers enjoy the great advantages of discipline and physical training.
In the event of this hastily desired temporary silence of the novelist becoming a reality, the novel manufacturer would probably disappear and betake himself to more remunerative trades, while the creator of character, the master of style, the builder of wellbalanced story and harmoniously linked incident, the true magician, under whose subtly woven spells enchanted palaces and gardens of exquisite delight arise unbidden —that is to say the maker or inventor as distinguished from the manufacturer—would take breath and recover waning strength after undue toil. No longer forced, his conceptions would mature silently, his humor mellow, his wit brighten, his imagination recover elasticity and strength of wing. The pageant of life, whether in tragic robe or comic mask, would unfold itself before eyes at leisure to observe and enjoy, and. preserved in memory, would silently impregnate brains that in due time would unconsciously reproduce the slowly developed pictures. There would lie leisure not only to study but to assimilate the life of the past and of other countries and classes, time to enrich overwrought minds by learning and meditation. Even the reviewer might be made something of. Relieved from the necessity of noticing ten novels a day in paragraphs of three lines each, he might be introduced to classic works of fiction and instructed in the elements of literature and first principles of criticism. People with views might convey them to mankind by some more suitable channel than that of fiction, the present conduit for everything, and this would be equally good for the views and the fiction. Readers would have time to discriminate and select from the enormous mass already before them, and many of the best works, at present hurried through or altogether passed over in the headlong gallop down the serried ranks of fresh publications now necessary, might emerge from undeserved and undesirable obscurity. The newly risen generation might be introduced to the immortals: to Scott, Jane Austen, Thackeray, Dickens, Charlotte Bronte. George Eliot, all of whom, it is said, are strange to the young goddesses who cycle and play hockey and tennis and wear such an astonishing variety of hats and gowns, and to the young mortals, cigarette in mouth, who earn opprobrious epithets at wickets and goals, many hurts at polo and much satisfaction on golf-links, and who wear hats and coats of no variety at all. Even poetry might once more form part of the reading of the better educated classes in the vast spaces of leisure created by a few years suspension of novel-writing, and in that case poetry might once more be produced by some "mute, inglorious" Tennysons and Keats, now keenly aware that little but preciosity, brutality, slang, and doggerel charms the public. The young novelist of the future, instead of hurrying, crude, and unteinpered, into print and stereotyping his worst points and cheapest effects because they best please the unlettered masses, might store his mind, train his powers of expression and mature his conceptions during that blessed truce to production, trying his 'prentice hand on works which in a few years he would gladly burn instead of delivering to the eternal damnation of print. Really fine novels are seldom written in youth. From thirty to fifty is the age at which most of the masterpieces of fiction have been produced, an age when intellect has been matured, experience grown and observation developed, and before imagination has weakened or feeling grown cold. It is true that the finest words of Dickens are youthful productions; but Dickens is not so much a great novelist as a great humorist and master of fanciful grotesque. Nor have the greatest writers of fiction been prolific: Dickens, yes; but the later, out-written Dickens to the earlier is as lees to sparkling wine. Thackeray's really fine works are quickly counted; Lovell the Widower and the Adventures of Philip might be spared. How few are George Eliot's at her best, how few the whole of Hawthorne's! After the collapse of many trashy magazines, the greatest good in the proposed silence might be the abatement, even extinction, of over-advertisement. That dishonest commercial trick, the boom, can only be applied successfully to work devoid of distinction; an element of commonness is essential to please readers only educated enough to like to think they are thinking and easily persuaded that they are. And while the boom almost forces such work upon the reading masses, it pushes true literature out of sight of the saving remnant; thus, puffing and booming, together with cheap and inferior magazines, have killed the idea of literature in average minds. But verbose commonplace and cheap effect might no longer content readers fed upon ripe fruits of genius, and neither perpetually importuned to swell prodigies of gigantic circulation nor tempted to dissolve' their intelligence in endless scraps of anecdote and startle their lethargic imaginations by prurient and realistic detail. There might be a literary renascence in England: and even reading would become a means of education if it gave the power of enjoying literature.
But in the event of such a silence, how would poor Scheherazade keep alive, or is there any Fund for the Support of Silent Novelists?
- Maxwell Gray, The Living Age, page 705, No. 3024, June 21 1902
It's hard to imagine the jaundiced frame of mind that led to that piece: MG was not a happy bunny.