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- How to Fail in Literature - 5/5 -

Here follows the anecdote, at prodigious length, and perfectly incoherent.

"Now, write THAT, and I shall always say I was partly the author. You really should give me a commission, you know. Well, good bye, tell your mother I called. Why, there she is, I declare. Oh, Susan, just come and hear the delightful plot for a novel that I have been giving Mary."

And then she begins again, only further back, this time.

It is thus that the aunts of England may and do assist their nieces to fail in literature. Many and many a morning do they waste, many a promising fancy have they blighted, many a temper have they spoiled.

Sisters are rather more sympathetic: the favourite plan of the brother is to say, "Now, Mary, read us your new chapter."

Mary reads it, and the critic exclaims, "Well, of all the awful Rot! Now, why can't you do something like Bootles's Baby?"

Fathers never take any interest in the business at all: they do not count. The sympathy of a mother may be reckoned on, but not her judgement, for she is either wildly favourable, or, mistrusting her own tendencies, is more diffident than need be. The most that relations can do for the end before us is to worry, interrupt, deride, and tease the literary member of the family. They seldom fail in these duties, and not even success, as a rule, can persuade them that there is anything in it but "luck."

Perhaps reviewing is not exactly a form of literature. But it has this merit that people who review badly, not only fail themselves, but help others to fail, by giving a bad idea of their works. You will, of course, never read the books you review, and you will be exhaustively ignorant of the subjects which they treat. But you can always find fault with the TITLE of the story which comes into your hands, a stupid reviewer never fails to do this. You can also copy out as much of the preface as will fill your eighth of a column, and add, that the performance is not equal to the promise. You must never feel nor shew the faintest interest in the work reviewed, that would be fatal. Never praise heartily, that is the sign of an intelligence not mediocre. Be vague, colourless, and languid, this deters readers from approaching the book. If you have glanced at it, blame it for not being what it never professed to be; if it is a treatise on Greek Prosody, censure the lack of humour; if it is a volume of gay verses, lament the author's indifference to the sorrows of the poor or the wrongs of the Armenians. If it has humour, deplore its lack of thoughtfulness; if it is grave, carp at its lack of gaiety. I have known a reviewer of half a dozen novels denounce half a dozen KINDS of novels in the course of his two columns; the romance of adventure, the domestic tale, the psychological analysis, the theological story, the detective's story, the story of "Society," he blamed them all in general, and the books before him in particular, also the historical novel. This can easily be done, by dint of practice, after dipping into three or four pages of your author. Many reviewers have special aversions, authors they detest. Whatever they are criticising, novels, poems, plays, they begin by an attack on their pet aversion, who has nothing to do with the matter in hand. They cannot praise A, B, C, and D, without first assailing E. It will generally be found that E is a popular author. But the great virtue of a reviewer, who would be unreadable and make others unread, is a languid ignorant lack of interest in all things, a habit of regarding his work as a tedious task, to be scamped as rapidly and stupidly as possible.

You might think that these qualities would displease the reviewer's editor. Not at all, look at any column of short notices, and you will occasionally find that the critic has anticipated my advice. There is no topic in which the men who write about it are so little interested as contemporary literature. Perhaps this is no matter to marvel at. By the way, a capital plan is not to write your review till the book has been out for two years. This is the favourite dodge of the -, that distinguished journal.

If any one has kindly attended to this discourse, without desiring to be a failure, he has only to turn the advice outside in. He has only to be studious of the very best literature, observant, careful, original, he has only to be himself and not an imitator, to aim at excellence, and not be content with falling a little lower than mediocrity. He needs but bestow the same attention on this art as others give to the other arts and other professions. With these efforts, and with a native and natural gift, which can never be taught, never communicated, and with his mind set not on his reward, but on excellence, on style, on matter, and even on the not wholly unimportant virtue of vivacity, a man will succeed, or will deserve success. First, of course, he will have to "find" himself, as the French say, and if he does NOT find an ass, then, like Saul the son of Kish, he may discover a kingdom. One success he can hardly miss, the happiness of living, not with trash, but among good books, and "the mighty minds of old." In an unpublished letter of Mr. Thackeray's, written before he was famous, and a novelist, he says how much he likes writing on historical subjects, and how he enjoys historical research. THE WORK IS SO GENTLEMANLY, he remarks. Often and often, after the daily dreadful lines, the bread and butter winning lines on some contemporary folly or frivolity, does a man take up some piece of work hopelessly unremunerative, foredoomed to failure as far as money or fame go, some dealing with the classics of the world, Homer or Aristotle, Lucian or Moliere. It is like a bath after a day's toil, it is tonic and clean; and such studies, if not necessary to success, are, at least, conducive to mental health and self-respect in literature.

To the enormous majority of persons who risk themselves in literature, not even the smallest measure of success can fall. They had better take to some other profession as quickly as may be, they are only making a sure thing of disappointment, only crowding the narrow gates of fortune and fame. Yet there are others to whom success, though easily within their reach, does not seem a thing to be grasped at. Of two such, the pathetic story may be read, in the Memoir of A Scotch Probationer, Mr. Thomas Davidson, who died young, an unplaced Minister of the United Presbyterian Church, in 1869. He died young, unaccepted by the world, unheard of, uncomplaining, soon after writing his latest song on the first grey hairs of the lady whom he loved. And she, Miss Alison Dunlop, died also, a year ago, leaving a little work newly published, Anent Old Edinburgh, in which is briefly told the story of her life. There can hardly be a true tale more brave and honourable, for those two were eminently qualified to shine, with a clear and modest radiance, in letters. Both had a touch of poetry, Mr. Davidson left a few genuine poems, both had humour, knowledge, patience, industry, and literary conscientiousness. No success came to them, they did not even seek it, though it was easily within the reach of their powers. Yet none can call them failures, leaving, as they did, the fragrance of honourable and uncomplaining lives, and such brief records of these as to delight, and console and encourage us all. They bequeath to us the spectacle of a real triumph far beyond the petty gains of money or of applause, the spectacle of lives made happy by literature, unvexed by notoriety, unfretted by envy. What we call success could never have yielded them so much, for the ways of authorship are dusty and stony, and the stones are only too handy for throwing at the few that, deservedly or undeservedly, make a name, and therewith about one-tenth of the wealth which is ungrudged to physicians, or barristers, or stock-brokers, or dentists, or electricians. If literature and occupation with letters were not its own reward, truly they who seem to succeed might envy those who fail. It is not wealth that they win, as fortunate men in other professions count wealth; it is not rank nor fashion that come to their call nor come to call on them. Their success is to be let dwell with their own fancies, or with the imaginations of others far greater than themselves; their success is this living in fantasy, a little remote from the hubbub and the contests of the world. At the best they will be vexed by curious eyes and idle tongues, at the best they will die not rich in this world's goods, yet not unconsoled by the friendships which they win among men and women whose faces they will never see. They may well be content, and thrice content, with their lot, yet it is not a lot which should provoke envy, nor be coveted by ambition.

It is not an easy goal to attain, as the crowd of aspirants dream, nor is the reward luxurious when it is attained. A garland, usually fading and not immortal, has to be run for, not without dust and heat.


{1} As the writer has ceased to sift, editorially, the contributions of the age, he does hope that authors will not instantly send him their MSS. But if they do, after this warning, they will take the most direct and certain road to the waste paper basket. No MSS. will be returned, even when accompanied by postage stamps.

{2} I have made a rich selection of examples from the works of living English and American authors. From the inextensive volumes of an eminent and fastidious critic I have culled a dear phrase about an oasis of style in "a desert of literary limpness." But it were hardly courteous, and might be dangerous, to publish these exotic blossoms of art.

{3} Appreciations, p. 18.

{4} It was the custom of Longinus, of the author of The Bathos, and other old critics, to take their examples of how NOT to do it from the works of famous writers, such as Sir Richard Blackmore and Herodotus. It seems altogether safer and more courteous for an author to supply his own Awful Examples. The Musical Rights in the following Poems are reserved.

{5} Or, if you prefer the other rhyme, read: And the wilderness of men.

{6} It is a teachable public: since this lecture was delivered the author has received many MSS. from people who said they had heard the discourse, "and enjoyed it so much."

How to Fail in Literature - 5/5

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