IS BARABBAS A NECESSITY?
PART FIRST—THE GENERAL ISSUE.
THERE has sprung up in all professions and trades a class of persons who exist parasitically on the labours of legitimate craftsmen. They toil very little, neither do they spin, yet Solomon in all his glory is not attired like one of them. Chief among these Parasitical Middlemen is the curious and anomalous being known as the PUBLISHER, the man who interposes, more or less strenuously, between the Writer of Books and the Public which reads them. From his own point of view, which is that of a very interested person, he is a necessity. He possesses (or is supposed to possess) Capital, he has credit with printers and paper manufacturers, he knows (or says he knows) the “Trade” and the Public, he can (at least sometimes) accurately distinguish between a manuscript and a millstone, he reads the Athenæum and other bewildering trade publications, and he claims, in exchange for this erudition, a position far superior, financially, to the craftsman through whose magnanimity or stupidity he exists. At any rate, while the Author, as a rule, lives a wretched life from hand to mouth, the Middleman who feeds upon him wears purple and fine linen, has a town and country house, and utters audacious opinions as to the Literature in which he deals.
I am not going to deny, for one moment, that there are honest Publishers. Even Mr. Besant admits that. Nor will I go so far as to say that all Publishers are uninstructed. If I did so, the intellectual achievements of a Smith, a Tinsley, and an Isbister would refute me. I have even met a Publisher who was not only intellectual but generous, but he was a foolish person, who placed the Author first, and himself second; and he died.
What I am going to contend for is the truth, that the Publisher is, of his very nature, unnecessary. He exists upon the superstition that the Author, the Writer of Books, is a Fool, incapable of managing his own business. He is a barnacle, a 4 fat flourishing barnacle, on the bottom of the good ship Literature. He is really not wanted at all; always inexpedient, he is usually an impediment and an impertinence.
There are spirited Publishers, no doubt, just as there used to be spirited Highwaymen, and there are honest ones, as I have said, just as here and there there is an honest (and possibly an impecunious) Lawyer. But it is quite in the power of the Author, as the real master of the situation, to abolish the Publisher altogether, or, which is the same thing, to relegate him to his proper place, that of the Bookseller, who sells the Author’s work for a fair commission.
I am anxious, before going any further, to dissipate any idea that I am anguishing under any sultry sense of wrong at the hands of the publishing class. Far from it. My experience of these gentlemen is, for the most part, pleasant. From one or two of them I have received no little courtesy. Only one of them has acted with supreme indifference to my wishes and my rights as an author, and only one other, furious because I did not come quite up to time in the completion of
a certain contract, threatened “to ruin me if it cost him a hundred pounds;” but this last, being of the Hebrew persuasion, was merely figuring the price at which he would be ready to crucify even his dearest friend. No; although I am not without a personal grievance against Barabbas, I heartily wish him well and honester methods of living. All I contend is, that he is a Robber, much demanded of the ignorant people, and that, in a properly constituted society, Robbers are objectionable.
As I write,* an extraordinary case occurs, which proves the extent of fatuity to which successful impudence may drive the class of man of whom I write. A distinguished man of letters was recently accused (falsely as I believed, though that is neither here nor there) of certain abominable offences, and for one reason and another, there was a strong public prejudice against him, insomuch that he was freely judged and lynched long before he was put on trial. Pending the said trial, a certain Mr. John Lane, who published several of this Author’s books, informed the public that he had taken upon himself to withdraw all the said books from circulation! To some, this procedure seemed noble public spirit; to
* May, 1895.
5 others, myself included, it seemed the very sublimity of brutal impertinence. If the works were Mr. Lane’s property, he had, of course, a right to sell or not sell them as he pleased, though he had no right whatever to insult the Author; if the works belonged to the Author, as I understand they did and do, Mr. Lane was simply a person engaged to dispose of them over the counter for the market price, and he had no more right than his own office boy to pronounce any opinion concerning them, or their writer. As it was, this Middleman, this purveyor of other men’s brains, was presuming upon his own false position in order to offer an insult to Literature. The impertinence of which I speak was the more remarkable in a person connected with the publication of many works which have been described as illustrating sexual mania, and, in particular, of an egregious Book which is labelled Yellow — possibly (on the principle of lucus a non lucendo) because most people consider it “Blue.”
I mention this circumstance merely to illustrate the falsehood of the position which the literary Middleman is in the habit of assuming. Strange to say, Authors submit to these insults daily. The next stage of publishing evolution will be that the Office-boy and the parcel Porter will pronounce judgment on the works they pass over the counter for transport to the luggage van. It is no uncommon thing for a Publisher to affirm autocratically that “the Public doesn’t want such and such a book,” or that the “ Public won’t stand ” such and such another; in other words, the barnacle on the ship’s bottom criticises the cargo in the hold! If it were remembered that the Publisher is, at best, only a differentiated, and badly differentiated, Bookseller, many such mistakes would be avoided.
I may be reminded, at this juncture, of memorable cases in which the Publisher, by his insight and enterprise, has virtually made the fortunes of Authors, especially new Authors whom he has “discovered.” Apart from the fact that I am sceptical about most of these cases, having failed utterly to discover where the Publisher’s “insight” comes in, it requires no great enterprise or cleverness to discover, with the aid of an educated “Reader,” work which is likely to “sell;” so little does it require, indeed, that the wonder is that so many works of genius have gone begging from door to door for a Publisher. What is more to the point is, how many Publishers have made a fortune for the Author without making a threefold fortune for themselves? Mr. Smith or Mr. Brown, or somebody equally famous, sat up all night reading Jane 6 Eyre, with the result that his firm published that great work but the question is, in what relation, as to pecuniary gains, did the Author and Publisher stand at the end of the bargain? One eminent Publisher, of exceptional talent and unimpeachable honesty, informed me on a certain occasion that he calculated to make at least a hundred pounds profit for every hundred pounds made by the Author—in other words, he claimed, for merely selling a book, exactly as much as the original producer, whose blood and brains and labour had been wearily spent to create form out of chaos. And this, bear in mind, was no ordinary Barabbas, but a high-minded gentleman! What the lower kind of Publisher exacts as toll between Author and Public, even when he is fairly honest, we all know; and if we do not know, we may find it all set down in the transactions of the Society of Authors. “Ah, but the Publisher,” I hear my reader exclaim, “often runs great risks.” In point of fact, he doesn’t! He almost invariably protects himself against loss of any kind, and always does so when the Author is unknown. True, his zeal for plunder, his eagerness to bluff the market, now and then gets him into trouble. A noticeable instance of this was when a hasty Publisher paid an enormous sum for a novel, a very bad novel, by a famous statesman, largely advertised the price he had paid for it, and then printed fabulous editions of it in three volumes, which were foisted on the libraries. What was the result? No one cared for the bad novel, which remained unread on the Librarian’s shelves; but for a long time afterwards every work of fiction which appeared suffered from the glut created at the fountain head, and every Author who published a book was more or less a loser by the Publisher’s cupidity and the Librarian’s imbecility.
It must be noted here, en passant, that some Publishers are in near personal association with the Librarians who let books out to read. For example, Mr. Pauling, of the firm of “William Heinemann,” was, and is, I believe, closely affiliated to Mudie’s Library; while other large Publishers are, I understand, shareholders in the same concern. This intimacy between Publishers and Librarians possibly accounts for the vogue which many worthless books suddenly gain in the market, as well as for the humility with which the whole publishing trade recently received an ultimatum from the Libraries that the price of works in two or three volumes must be reduced. I may deal on another occasion with our beautiful Library system,* which allows an irresponsible
* See note, Miss Braddon and Mudie’s.
7 tradesman to be an autocratic censor morum; in the meantime, I merely wish to point out that, in that memorable manifesto acceded to by the Publisher, the only person who had any right to say at what price his wares should be sold—I mean the Author—was not consulted; and as a consequence he, and he only, has been a loser by the Publisher’s timidity. Meantime, it is notorious that certain works are forced at the great Libraries, while others are rigidly suppressed or distributed parsimoniously. In the experiment which I personally am making, and to the explanation of which I shall come presently, we shall discover to what extent the Librarian is in league with Barabbas. In the meantime, I take leave to announce that I shall publish my works at whatever price I please, with no reference to anyone’s convenience but my own, and that of the Public to which I shall appeal. Being my own Publisher I shall at least save the ordinary Publisher’s blackmail, appealing straight to the legitimate sellers of books, the wholesale and retail Booksellers, who have a perfect right to be paid if they take the trouble to sell my manufactures.
Everywhere at present we see, under the mighty headlines:—
MR. JONATHAN WILD’S NEW BOOKS,
PUBLICATIONS BY MACHEATH & COMPANY,
AT ALL LIBRARIES,
the list of well-known writer’s names attached in smaller type to their works; and it is needless to say that the writers in question pay to advertise Macheath & Co. and Jonathan Wild. This is, at the best, a sorry state of affairs, but it is quite possible, as I shall show, to alter it for the better, substituting for the names of Publishers on the title-page the simple form of announcement once so common:—
PRINTED FOR THE AUTHOR,
And sold by Messrs. Brown, Jones & Robinson,
Paternoster Row; Jenkins & Jenkins, Albemarle
Street; MacHaggis & Son, Edinburgh; and most
This, I say, can be done conveniently enough, even if the Author declines to follow my initiative, the formula of which reads boldly:—
IS BARABBAS A NECESSITY?
By ROBERT BUCHANAN.
ROBERT BUCHANAN, AUTHOR AND PUBLISHER.
8 In either case, the Author is his own Publisher. How advantageous the scheme is to the chief person concerned, I now propose to show.
To begin with, I do not announce my publishing scheme as a new discovery. It was adopted long ago by Mr. Ruskin, and it is practised (I understand) by Mr. William Morris, in regard to some of his own works. But I have to warn the neophyte that, when he first attempts to engineer his own property, Messrs. Barabbas, Macheath, Wild & Co., will proceed against him with mighty incantations, first calling up to daunt him a terrible Spectre, black as printer’s ink, whom they call
THE TRADE! ! !
Let not the neophyte be dismayed. The Trade is a Bogey at the worst. Whenever the Public really wants a book, the Public will get it, though all the diabolic machinery in the world is used to prevent it. And reduced to common sense, the Trade simply consists of a number of mild Booksellers, who merely want to earn an honest living, and who gain nothing at all from the rapacity of Publishers. A more formidable apparition, at the command of many Publishers, is
THE PRESS! ! !
But the Press, too, is only a Bogey, and should really frighten no one. It is true enough that the Bogey dances wonderfully to the piping of our Highwaymen.* Turning over certain catalogues of new and recent works, I found page after page devoted to “Press Opinions” on the same, from which I gathered darkly that every one of them, almost without exception, was “a Masterpiece.” “Hang it,” I exclaimed, “they can’t all be Masterpieces!” But they all are; the Bogey says it. What does it matter? Just as we all know that when a Bishop praises a book, it must be a morally good and intellectually retrograde book, so do we know that when newspapers hail some callow or “goody, goody” work as a “Masterpiece,” it is only the Press’s fun. The Bogey is merely dancing. Its abuse is about as precious and discriminating as its praise; only, one thing is to be noted, that what it abuses is a hundred times more likely to be a “Masterpiece ” than what it praises.
* See Lord Macaulay on “Puffing,” in the famous Montgomery article. The passage would apply almost literally to the journalistic criticism of the present day.
9 No; the Trade doesn’t matter, the Press doesn’t matter, Bogies of every kind sink to insignificance, when an Author boldly resolves to come face to face with the Public to whom he wishes to sell his wares. Let me return to myself, and the ideas I have in becoming my own Publisher.
The notion, long nebulous in my mind, first became substantial to me last summer at Trouville. Seated in the great café on the sands, surrounded by gay viveurs and lightsome beauties of all nationalities, I was conscious of a plump little man, with a light wallet on his back, moving from group to group, and exchanging amenities with all and sundry. Bright-eyed and happy, neither too loquacious nor too dignified, he offered fresh olives for sale, and from time to time, after the minor business had been disposed of, exhibited a little volume of his own composition. Some bought, others laughed and declined, others invited the good soul to refreshment and conversation, but in every case two things were noticeable—the quiet self-possession of the man, and the courtesy of the persons to whom he introduced himself. In due time he approached me, and I discovered that he was the poet, Jean Sarrasin, who printed and published his own verses in Paris, and retailed them, as well as fresh olives, at the seaside. I found him quite charming, and when we had talked a little, and I had bought his little book, we parted with mutual bows and raising of hats.
Poet, Publisher, peripatetic retailer of fresh fruit and new verses—surely his was the idyllic life! I felt charmed and inspired, and resolved there and then to imitate the delightful Jean. I knew my own countrymen better than to venture at Margate or Brighton on a literal imitation of his performances, but I would do the next best thing—I would myself publish and sell the fruits of my own imagination.
On calculating the whole thing out, I was amazed to discover how imbecile I had been throughout these long years, when I had been the slave of the middlemen. In many cases I had sold outright to these harpies, for a mere song, works which would have yielded, on the most moderate computation, a decent annual income. For example, Messrs. Chatto & Windus possessed the entire copyrights of most of my prose stories; what they had paid for them originally I should blush to record, since it so sadly illustrates my own folly; but on several occasions I had offered to buy them back at twice or thrice the price originally given for them, and my offer had not even been entertained. These stories, whether good, bad, or indifferent, were well-known all over the world, 10 were constantly in more or less demand, and they were not yielding one penny to the man out of whose brain-sweat they were manufactured. Of course, I am not blaming the Publishers in question for sticking to their purchase; a bargain is a bargain, and they had a right to profit by my ignorance and my necessity.
I may remark here, en passant, that all Authors should be grateful to Mr. Walter Besant for his warning against parting altogether, on any terms, with their copyrights. But it is just in this matter that the rapacity of the Middleman comes in. The Author is poor (he always will be poor as long as the Publisher exists!) and the Middleman tempts him with cash down. In his extremity for a mere pittance, he parts with property which may or may not be of precious value, but which is always, in any case, and at the worst computation, worth a great deal more than the usurer will give for it. He fattens the Middleman’s catalogue, and loses his birthright for a mess of pottage. It is the fact that many Publishers decline altogether to publish works which they cannot purchase outright. Here is an illustration. Mr. Henry Murray wrote a clever story, which was declined (he tells me) by about thirty publishers, on the score that a certain episode in it might be distasteful to the public. At last, Messrs. Chatto & Windus undertook to publish it, but only on one condition—that they might purchase the absolute copyright. The Author would willingly have agreed to any arrangement which would give him an interest in results—an interest, however small; but the Publishers were inexorable—he must sell outright at a price they peremptorily fixed, or they would not publish at all. In his despair, in his eagerness to get his work issued at any cost, Mr. Murray consented. A Song of Sixpence was published, was almost universally praised by the press, ran rapidly to a second edition, is still selling, and remains the sole property of Messrs. Chatto & Windus, who paid for it, on the “stand and deliver” principle, the munificent sum of—£10!
Now, in a case like this (which is only one of a thousand), the only honourable course for a Publisher to adopt is very clear. If he thinks the book will not sell, he need not publish it; if he does publish it, he should allow the Author to profit by such success as it achieves. He has no moral right whatever to trade on the Author’s impecuniosity or ignorance, and to make a bargain which deprives the manufacturer for ever of any interest in his own goods. Fortunately, there are examples where the Publisher is just and generous. Here is 11 an illustration of that. Messrs. Bentley & Son purchased from Miss Harriett Jay for a small sum the copyright of her first novel, The Queen of Connaught. The book was very successful in its three-volume form, and yet Messrs. Bentley were entitled, on their agreement, to retain the absolute copyright. Instead of doing so, they were so content with the profit they had made on the three volume editions, that they generously made the authoress a present of the copyright of the work, and so enabled her to deal as she pleased with subsequent editions.
Of course, the Publisher’s chance lies in the Author’s pecuniary extremity. Most Authors, as I have said, are very poor and live from hand to mouth. Even when they are allowed a share of the results, it is generally a very small share—say, 10 or 15 per cent. on the sales, while the Publisher retains 90 or 85 per cent. Of course, there is the “risk,” but Publishers, as I have pointed out, seldom or never take any. A very small edition of a book pays all the expenses of production. Less than 500 copies of a book published at 6s. will clear all outlay.
In a word, it is organised robbery all round—and robbery by men who have no interest in Literature but one interest, that of plunder; who do not, for the most part, know a book from a razor; who grow fat and prosperous on the Author’s foolishness; and whose heirs are rich men, when the descendants of the Author are being carried to the workhouse.*
But to my thesis, which is to prove that an Author would be wise to become, as I have done, his own Publisher. To illustrate the profits and gains on the sale of books, let me take the case of a story published, say, at six shillings, the usual price for a new work of fiction in one volume. Speaking roughly, the cost of producing 500 copies of such a story and advertising it, is between £60 and £70. A sale of 500 copies covers this cost liberally. If 1,000 copies are produced and sold, there is a profit of at least £50. But it is. a very unsuccessful story indeed which sells so little at so low a price; 5,000 copies is nearer the mark for a moderately popular story, and on a sale of 5,000 copies there would be a profit of over £400. How is this profit usually divided, when the Author puts his story into the hands of a Publisher? Nineteen out of twenty unknown Authors are ready to sell such a story outright for £100 cash, and are very glad to get it. In many cases, however, an Author accepts a royalty of
* See Note. “The Author of Maritana.”
12 about 1/- a copy on a 6/- book, so that he would receive out of a sale of 5,000 copies exactly £250, while the Publisher, for merely sticking his name on it, receives £150. But assume the sale to be much larger; assume the author to be a Gladstonian genius, who sells his 40,000 copies. A royalty of 1/- a copy would give the author some £2,000, while the Publisher would receive, for putting his precious name on it, at least £2,500; for it must be remembered that the bigger the sale of a book is, the greater is the proportional profit on every copy sold over the counter.
I knew very well that I had never written a Gladstonian masterpiece, and that I could not rely on anyone of the Bench of Bishops. I knew well, moreover, that among my first publications was one which might horrify and infuriate those two Publishers’ Bogies—the TRADE and the PRESS. Nevertheless, it was clear to me that, if I discarded the Middleman altogether, I could realise as much in actual cash by a very small sale as I could, in the other case, by a tolerably large one: that, for example, 1,000 copies of a book published by myself, without the intermediary, would return me as much as twice the number sold for me by a Publisher. All that I had to do was to take an office of my own, employ a practical publisher, print my books at my own expense, and publish them myself in the usual way.
This I have done, beginning with the present little manifesto and The Devil’s Case.
I have in my possession, moreover, the copyrights, and in several instances the stereotypes, of my best works, with the exception of several prose stories which I have hopelessly lost. With these, and with a little new work, I hope to make a fair beginning. Assuming, for the sake of argument (which I do not assume in fact) that some of my writings have owed part of their sale to the enterprise of the Publisher, with his “knowledge,” his “insight,” and all that sort of thing, I can still do better for myself than he could or would do for me, even if I achieve a far smaller sale.
There are other advantages in this method of publication, besides the chance of better pecuniary results. I shall not see any popular work of mine, under my own hands, appear year after year in editions unworthy of really successful matter. To illustrate what I mean, the reader can refer to my novel of the Shadow of the Sword, published by Messrs. Chatto & Windus, and printed year after year from the old stereotypes of a totally different firm, used originally by Messrs. Strahan, and taken over for a trifle. I shall not 13 be lost among the crowd of authors in a Publisher’s list. I shall know when, how, and where money is spent in advertising my productions, and I shall be advertising them and their Author, not any Highwayman or Middleman whatsoever. I shall, in short, be my own master, and I shall be proving that the publishing Middleman is not a necessity.
Authors, we are assured on every side, and especially by the experts who plunder them, are not “ business ” men. That such is the case, has been well proved in the past, and will doubtless he often proved in the future; but let us bear carefully in mind the fact that it is the interest of that nondescript, the Publisher, to deny the intelligence of his clients and to assume that the poor creatures need pioneering. In answer to some of the statements I have made in this paper a playful Publisher once said to me: “You forget many things; you forget, for example, our large capital, which we risk in our business; you forget our enormous machinery for pushing books and making them known; you forget that many books are “subscribed ” on the mere strength of our name on the title page; you forget, in short, our extensive agencies everywhere, for making the fortune of a work.” On that very occasion, the same noble Publisher expressed his opinion that it was extremely greedy and selfish for an Author to expect to make money by certain high works of imagination; the pleasure of creating them ought, he thought, to be sufficient! All which only proves that Barabbas has humour of the sort celebrated by Fielding, when he wrote the history of Jonathan Wild. Now, there can be no doubt whatever that the Publisher’s strength is in his capital; money always makes money; but it requires very little capital indeed to print and publish a book. With regard to the enormous machinery for “pushing” books, a little reflection will show us that Publishers are unable to push anything which does not go almost of its own accord. The machinery only means being on good terms with the retail trade, giving more or less credit, and sending a few travellers from town to town. The extensive agencies, moreover, are agencies to exploit the Publisher’s wares generally, and not the individual Author’s wares particularly. Just as in the advertising announcements, it is Jonathan Wild & Co., and Barabbas & Son, whose trade mark is being insisted on, and for all this the Author is expected to pay. My own belief is that the Public, when 14 they want to read a book, take very little trouble to inquire who publishes it.
The matter, of course, will speedily be put to a test in my own case; and I am quite prepared for a conspiracy of the whole book-publishing trade to ignore, boycott, and starve me out. They will have a special chance of doing so in the case of my first publication, since (as I have said) it has the misfortune to be unusually heterodox. The Newspapers will abuse it or ignore it, the righteous Bookseller will be very naturally afraid of it, and it cannot, from its nature, be forced on the unwary in the way frequently adopted—a way which, on another occasion, I propose fully to explain. But of one thing I am certain, that if the Public care for it, they will get it, in the teeth of all the Highwaymen in the world; that is to say, if they know of its existence, and I mean to take care they shall.
Before concluding these general remarks, I wish to protest again (as I did originally in the Daily Chronicle), against the mistaken generosity of Count Tolstoi, in announcing that he meant to take no money for his writings, and that any one might freely print and publish them. The eccentric Russian, under the idea that he was benefitting Humanity, was simply confering a favour on the least deserving of all men, those who have no real interest in Literature, but who exist by selling the works which they never create and very seldom even understand. “And Barabbas, also, was a Publisher;” so Tolstoi blest Barabbas, and endowed the Robber with all his worldly goods. Would he not have acted more nobly if he had sold his writings to Barabbas, and since he didn’t need the money, had given it to the Poor—even to the poor Author, whose name is legion? But the charity of latter-day Christianity is like the religion of otherworldliness generally; it scatters largesse to all the world, especially to the underling, and it forgets its duty to its own household. When this infamous announcement was made, a leader-writer in the Daily Chronicle went into ecstacies of admiration at the Russian’s disdain of gain, his greatness of soul, his generosity; and then, no doubt, the pious journalist took the cash for his own precious leader, altogether ignoring the fact that he had been preaching the gospel of “indiscriminate charity to Thieves.” The best friend of the Author is he who exacts the largest amount possible from the Publisher; his worst friend 15 is the fanatic who, like Tolstoi, stands by, while the Author is plundered, and then makes the Robber a gratuitous present of all his own possessions. Every Author in Europe suffered more or less for that act of bewildered Christianity; for since no morsel of bread can be eaten which does not practically deprive some other person of a morsel of bread, so no book can be issued free of author’s charges which does not displace to a certain extent some other book by which some poor devil had hoped to live. Tolstoi’s works, flooding the cheap book market, damaged the profession of authorship generally, and the only persons who profited by them were the Highwaymen of the publishing trade.
I think I have said all I need say on the general question. Fearful of boring the reader, I have not figured out in detail all the calculations which prove that, in dealing with professional Publishers, an Author is only enriching the Middleman, who is by no manner of means a necessity. The difficulty with Authors, in embarking in the publishing enterprise, is their very general want of capital. Their difficulty would be met if a Society of Authors would play the good Samaritan, and advance the amounts necessary for the mere printing and publishing of deserving works, taking only a small commission by way of interest. The risk would be little or nothing, if due judgment were exercised in the selection of deserving books; the gain to poor Authors, on the other hand, would be enormous. In the meantime, the whole Publishing system is an abomination. I have a right to get the largest amount of money possible out of the fruit of my own brains; I have no right whatever to trade on the brains of other people; and I am anxious to do everything in my power to check the cruelty and rapacity by which I and all Writers of Books have suffered for many weary years.
Author and Publisher.
In following the methods of sundry Publishers already existing, who issue descriptions or “advices” to their clients—e.g., Mr. Fisher Unwin’s Good Reading, a Monthly Advice on his own publications,—I hope to snatch a grace, to say nothing of an impudence, beyond the reach of Barabbas, and to become, from time to time, my own Expositor and my own Critic! This is the more necessary, as I have not as yet settled the terms and conditions of a right understanding with the Professional Critics. I possess one great advantage, moreover, over ordinary Publishers, in so far as I have some slight knowledge of the literature on my list.
My first book is, as the reader is aware, a new poem, written in unrhymed trochaics, and called THE DEVIL’S CASE: A BANK HOLIDAY INTERLUDE. It was written in the summer and autumn of 1894, and was originally intended to form part of a longer poem, of which it was an episode. Growing under my hands, and assuming formidable dimensions, it at last orbed itself into a coherent and single work, complete and not unimportant, though short enough to be read at a sitting. I am, of course, quite unable to decide on its merits as literature, but I am convinced in my own mind that it states the position of the ideal Revolter with a fullness which no previous Poet has even attempted. Nevertheless, it must not be read as a final statement of the Author’s own View on things natural and supernatural.
Please remember, gentle Reader,
Not to judge me line by line,—
Tho’ I try to state it truly,
’Tis the Devil’s Case, not mine!
as I say on the flyleaf.
It may be explained, if explanation is necessary, that I have somewhat heterodox ideas on the subject of Poetry in general, and that these ideas make me impatient to the verge of irreverence with some of the Master Singers who have preceded me. I expressed my feeling very strongly some years ago, when a perfervid young newspaper critic, angry with me for writing The Wandering Jew, and wishing to be impertinent in the manner of his tribe, quoted to me some of the 17 princely platitudes (as they seemed to me), written by Mr. Pope in his egregious Essay on Man. I knew that it was quite safe, in these days, to scoff at Pope’s verses and Bolingbroke’s philosophy. It is not so safe to say anything disrespectful of John Milton, yet I am constrained to do so, after having again read, during my collation of the Devil’s Bibliography, that extraordinary production of which Satan is the Hero. To my poor mind, Paradise Lost is a drearily bad business for all concerned—for the great Poet who wrote the Areopagitica and Samson Agonistes, for the critics who, from Addison downward, have swallowed the whole camel of his epic absurdity, for Satan himself, for poor Humanity, and, above all, for the God of English Puritanism.
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.
And he does justify them, in conceptions worthy of Mr. Chadband and Little Bethel, and in verses which not seldom set the teeth on edge! I am willing to admit that there is a great deal of fine writing, a great deal of what the Reviewers call “imagination,” in this Poem, great in the sense in which the Megatherium was great, chiefly in regard to size. I will even admit, further, that it does represent, as all real poetry must do, a certain fixed body of human belief, and that it will always delight those who pin their faith to Moses and the Pentateuch. But my contention is that it is, being morally and intellectually a dead thing, of consequence dead poetically. It is a colossal libel on eternal Providence. Reading it, one is almost ashamed of the human species, of its Creator, even of the Devil, and for this reason, God has punished its Author for once, by making him as deadlily and unutterably dull as Peter Bell.
Now, I do not apply to any Masterpiece the yardwands of contemporary thought and culture, and demand that it shall be up to date in either its religion or its philosophy. What I do contend is, that no real Masterpiece can ever become ignoble, even when the faith which inspired it is lost for ever. We do not believe now in Pallas Athene, or in rosy-fingered Eos, but the gods of Homer are still imperishable, and the fairy tale of Ulysses is still fresh and living. We are far away as London and Dr. Martineau from the hideous pageantry of Dante’s Hell, but (much as we wish that two-thirds of the angry parochialisms in the Divine Comedy had gone by the board) the spirit that surrounds us in reading Dante’s epic is always consistently romantic and poetical. It 18 is unnecessary, however, to go to other writers for an illustration, as we possess in our own language a work which, although it embodies national superstition, possesses the eternal truth of Fairyland—is child-like, naive, and charming. I allude, of course, to Bunyan’s delightful parable, the Pilgrim’s Progress—a book which, in my opinion, is far more surely a Poem, although it is written in prose, than the cumbrous Epic of Milton. But the reader will perhaps demand, is not Paradise Lost also a “Fairy Tale?” Certainly; but it is a Fairy tale written by one who had passed out of the childish region of natural magic into the hazy region of middle-aged theology. That it is the work of a real Poet, that it contains fine passages of great and grandiose imagery, no one doubts; but its reputation is unreal, and it would have been long since forgotten, save for the hosannahs of the small and classic-cherishing critic.
I will not wander further away into a discussion which is finally settled, in my Poem, by the DEVIL himself. All the poets, without exception, have been infected by popular superstition, and have missed the true inwardness of the Spirit of Revolt. Goethe is no exception to the rule. His Mephistophiles is another vulgarian, another libel on the nature which denies. Supreme Pity and Sympathy, supreme Love and Tenderness, supreme dissatisfaction with a System which is disfigured by so much Evil, form the true note of the true Devil, as I have shown.
Closely following on THE DEVIL’S CASE, I shall issue in a separate form, THE DEVIL’S SABBATH—a sort of English, or rather Scottish, Walpurgis Night. The scene is that of my Coruisken Sonnets,—Loch Coruisk, or the Corry of the Water, in the Island of Skye. It is a little work which requires no explanation, being in fact an Epilogue to its immediate predecessor, and to the WANDERING JEW.
At the moment of issuing THE DEVIL’S CASE (which has been in type, by the way, for many months), I see that Miss Marie Corelli has written and published a new story called The Sorrows of Satan. Miss Corelli, using a very wise discretion, does not present her book to the Critics, but I have read one review of the work, and more recently the work itself, from which it appears that the Devil of a maiden imagination, so far from resembling the true and only Devil whom I interviewed on Hampstead Heath, is merely the sentimental yet 19 wicked Lucifer so dear to Laura Matilda. He is, in short, the blasé, evening-party-haunting, and wholly superfine young ladies’ Devil of Lord Byron, Bulwer Lytton, and Satan-Montgomery, and has nothing in common with the great Original. I might have known, of course, that the author of Barabbas, who was content to swallow the whole camel of Christian thaumaturgy at one gulp, and who had pictured to us as genteel a Jesus as ever had “marble limbs” and Apollo-like proportions, would never write anything to give offence in the upper circles of society and religion; but when I saw the title of .her book I was a little afraid that I had been forestalled, and that the real Satan, forgetful of his pledge to me, had been powwowing at Earl’s Court with Miss Corelli, Mr. Gladstone, and the Prince of Wales.
Now, I like Miss Corelli. Whatever the authorised Critics may say of her, she has won her public—a very large one—by sheer energy of pluck and talent. I have taken Tea with her, and I have it in her own pretty handwriting that I am a Great Poet, that she sits (metaphorically) at my feet, and that she has drunk rapture and inspiration from my masterpieces of song. I was a little surprised, therefore, when she went out of her way, about a year ago, to call me “a Scottish Playwright,” and to say that “there would be something inexpressibly funny in a Robert Buchanan pronouncing doom on the Christ, if it were not so revolting.” This, alas! after all the Tea, all the missives on pink-tinted paper, and all the adoration! But I fancy that the angry little lady conceived, for some reason or other, that I was one of her adverse critics, and that I had inspired my friends to treat her writings cavalierly. She actually believed, I fear, that I, the very Ishmael of Authors, who never had a Log rolled for me in my life, had been in league against her with the Nonconformist Conscience and the Daily Chronicle! Hence the sudden and startling “’Tilda, I hate you!” from Fanny to her dearest friend.
Now, in saying that I “pronounce doom on the Christ,” Miss Corelli is guilty of the very injustice which she resents, very rightly, in the organs of criticism. She has not read my WANDERING JEW, or, if she has read it, she has failed to understand it—I may say, indeed, that she has not even tried to understand it, for, whatever else she may lack, she certainly does not lack intelligence. Let me add now, that I am in full sympathy with her in her revolt against the inexpressible indolent Reviewer of the period, and that I resent, almost as indignantly as herself, the imbecile abuse with 20 which anonymous impudence and envy assail every kind of talent and individuality, when it appears. Miss Corelli is both talented and individual, and is trying with all her might, and in spite of all that scribblers may say of her, to express herself seriously in literature. I contend, therefore, that unknown writers on newspapers have no right to drive her mad with insults only worthy of Gavroche or Bailey Junior. It is a favourite expression with Miss Corelli to say, when she reads an adverse and insulting review, that it is “inexpressibly funny.” If she finds it so, it might be better to treat it with silent indifference, but I prefer to think that she, like the rest of us, finds it irritating and painful. We all like praise; personally I love nothing better than rapturous admiration—such as Miss Corelli gave me a year or two ago.
I have mentioned THE WANDERING JEW. A London newspaper said of it shortly after its first appearance: “So far, not a single criticism worth reading has appeared in the London press.” Surely that was to be expected? If the journalists of London thought as I do on religious subjects, if the Press and Public viewed Christ and Christianity from my point of view, where would be the necessity of writing? For a work of the kind, the Poem had a good sale and a better circulation, and it provoked in The Daily Chronicle a controversy of most amazing significance, proving conclusively that the large mass of newspaper readers and correspondents, including several men of letters, had never seriously thought on religious subjects at all. Mr. Richard Le Gallienne, a featherheaded young logroller, called my work “an Adelphi drama,” wailed tenderly over the beauty of “essential Christianity,” and then went away to dine with that arch old materialist and tippler, Omar Khayoum. This, at any rate, if I may again quote Miss Corelli, was “inexpressibly funny.” But not content with this, the featherheaded young logroller rushed into print with a book about what he called his “religion,” the Religion of a Literary Man. I ran to get that book, for I was curious to know what sort of creed was held by a gentleman, a Literary Man, who .thought Pope’s famous Essay a masterpiece of thought and expression; and this was what I found: That “essential” Christianity meant essential Nebulosity, that it didn’t imply either God or Immortal Life, that we eat and drink and tomorrow we die, but that it didn’t particularly matter, that :in fact, nothing mattered very much, so long as we had the Star, the Logrollers, Jesus, Omar Khayoum, the Yellow Book, and Mr. George Meredith! About the same time another Literary Gentleman, a Novelist, who informed me that he had 21 wept “great tears” over my Ballad of Judas Iscariot, wrote to me saying that The Wandering Jew shocked him terribly, and that he was sorry I had published it. I asked him “why?” I asked him if he was a Christian, and he replied in the negative; he didn’t know exactly what he was, he didn’t believe anything in particular; but, confound it, Jesus was a “beautiful idea,” and all that sort of thing, and, on the whole, people’s feelings ought not to be shocked in that way, don’t you know!
The new edition of THE WANDERING JEW, which is now in the press, will contain, in an appendix, a selection from the Daily Chronicle correspondence, and in order to meet all classes of readers, will be issued at as low a price as possible. Much of the real intelligence of this country is to be found among the classes who cannot afford to buy expensive books, and to whom even six shillings is a prohibitive price.
Concerning my other publications, I shall have something to say in a future leaflet. They will include, as I have announced, a new and complete library edition of my Poems, with a Portrait and illustrations. The only work on my list which is not absolutely from my own hand comes from a source so near to me that it may be considered more or less mei generis. The Adventures of Miss Brown, an unpretending piece of farcical tomfoolery, is already popular in the theatre. The story is from the pen of “Charles Marlowe,” better known under her own name as the authoress of the Queen of Connaught and other famous stories.
I have hinted, in the first part of this brochure, that I have personally suffered from the cruelty of Publishers. One instance is as good as a dozen, and as it occurs at the very moment of writing, I will give it.
The reader may have observed in recent publishing announcements, the name of a book, Lady Kilpatrick, described as “Mr. Buchanan’s New Novel.” It is, in reality, not a “novel” at all, but a shortish story, written some years ago during a period of nightmare, and sold for a trifle to keep the wolf from the door. Looked at in cold blood, it has absolutely no merit whatever. Why, then, the reader will ask, did Mr. Buchanan suffer it to be reprinted under his name? The fact is, I had thought it dead and buried, when I saw in a newspaper that it was to be published by Messrs. Chatto & Windus. My first impulse was to let it go, to make no effort to tear another nail from the coffin of my 22 reputation, for at that time I had been stricken down so low by personal sorrow, to say nothing of financial calamity, that things worldly were almost indifferent to me. A little afterwards, however, I summoned up heart of grace and wrote to the Publishers, offering to refund them, with interest, whatever they had given for the book, and pointing out to them that it was positively valueless as literature. To show that I expressed myself in sufficiently strong terms, I append a portion of my letter:—
“This story and several others were produced at a time when I was driven to despair by pecuniary troubles, which culminated in my bankruptcy. To avoid ruin, if possible, I wrote (for miserable sums) work in which I had to have assistance. The whole of that period is a nightmare to me, and closely upon it has come the greatest grief and sorrow of my life. It is doubly hard and cruel that any person should endeavour, at such a time, to ruin me with the novel-reading public. . . . However, if you are determined, so am I. The world shall know why, at a time of personal calamity, these inferior works appear under my name. I am quite prepared to be told that I have been to blame, that I should have been more careful of my own reputation, but I shall at least show that I am not quite so foolish as to think the work done in desperation and despair is worthy of me.”—(R. B., to Chatto & Windus, February 14th, 1895.)
In the face of this intreaty, Messrs. Chatto & Windus persisted, and the book was published. The same gentlemen had adopted the same course a year before, with a belated story called Rachel Dene, and on that occasion I protested publicly.
Now, the veriest tyro in literature could have told from reading a few pages of these books, that they did not bear my sign manual at all. How the books came to be written, and under what circumstances, I need hardly explain, after the explanation given in the above extract from a painful correspondence. Observe, I am not justifying myself. I am only pointing out certain simple facts as between a writer and the men who live by his misfortunes. I should have starved and died, rather than have fathered works which I myself had not lawfully begotten; possibly, indeed, I would have done so, but for the fact that I would not have starved alone, that others dearer to me than myself would have starved also. The last fact remains as my only justification. If the thing were to do again, I would possibly act in the same manner, but now that I have taken my own affairs in hand, it is not likely to recur.
It is only under very peculiar circumstances, I fancy, that a Poet ever takes to prose story-writing. I wrote my first stories simply and solely because I could not live by writing verse; but these stories were, for the most part, subjects which had already been schemed out as poems, and their themes as well as their treatment were romantic and poetical. The Shadow of the Sword, God and the Man, and even Foxglove 23 Manor, could only have been conceived by a Poet. But it should be borne in mind that the Novel, so called, that is to say, the modern Prose Story, is, of its very nature, formless and inchoate, and hardly belongs to real Art at all.
As regards the confession of potboiling and backsliding, which has just been indirectly made, I know, quite as well as my severest critic, that the great Public is completely indifferent as to the conditions under which Books are written, and is only concerned with the attraction of the Books themselves. All appeals ad misericordiam are, therefore, absurd and useless. But mine is not an appeal at all, or, if an appeal, it is one ad justitiam. It is a mere statement of facts, a mere explanation that I am not fatuous enough to mistake any of my geese for Swans. Having been driven out on the highways to break stones for Publishers, I have done my best in that way until such time I could escape from the necessity, that is all. The works which will henceforth be issued under my own publishing imprimatur, may or may not prove that I am anything better than a stonebreaker, a hodman, a labourer. All I want to do is, once for all, to let the public know for what work of mine I myself seriously ask a hearing.
At the same time, I offer no apology to the public for anything I have written, and he who wishes to judge me by my sink and my dustheap is quite at liberty to do so. The works I refuse to father are poor enough in all conscience, but they are harmless tale-tellings, which make no compromise with the Devil or his deputies. I have never, like some contemporaries who shall be nameless, danced to the conjuring of the newspaper Critic, or mistaken the puddle of Pessimism for the crystalline well of Art. My progress, therefore, has never been a real descent into Hades. My potboilers have been frankly and simply potboilers, not half-hearted attempts to compromise between my desire for popular success and my love for Art as Art. They are really so trivial, so remote from my real way of thinking, that they can never be hung round my neck as emblems of what I really am and aspire to be. Meantime, those who have any interest in me as a Thinker can turn to the works which are to be issued under my own seal and cachet, and speedily discover for themselves whether my thoughts and opinions are worth studying. Poor or rich, true or mistaken, they are at least my own. I bow to no idols, listen to no base importunities, in the region of my real work. 24 I seek the Truth only, and I shall live or die by the Truth, for I believe that it is absolutely great and must prevail.
I will conclude these random notes, and my whole diatribe against Barabbas, with an extract from a letter which I have just received from a distinguished man of letters, to whom I had shown the proof sheets of THE DEVIL’S CASE, and whom I chose for that confidence because I knew him to be diametrically opposed, both in character and experience, to myself. Although not at liberty to divulge his name, I may say, without hesitation, that he is a man who is well known for intellectual honesty and practical beneficence, a man for whom I have the very highest respect, short of sympathising in the least degree with his opinions. These are his words, and they are very remarkable words, coming as they do from an enthusiast in the cause of social progress:—
“I observe that you are superstitious, that you want ‘solutions,’ that you are driven to pessimism by your failure to find them, and that you are highly susceptible to the fullness and oppression of heart caused by love and death to men of strong sentiment. The reason we get on together in our correspondence is because I am as much as possible the reverse of all this. I have lost my father and my sister, with whom I was on excellent terms; and I assure you their deaths disturbed me less than a misprint in an article. If my mother dies before me, I am quite sure that I shall not be moved by it as much as I was moved by your poem on the death of your mother.* The inevitable does not touch me; it is the non-avoidance of the evitable, the neglect of the possible, the falling short of attainable efficiency, clearness, accuracy, and beauty, that set me raging. I really care deeply for nothing but fine work, and since nobody can help me in this, no loss can greatly affect my self-sufficiency. . . . . There is nothing anti-social in all this; quite the reverse. Usually this sort of thing is so terrifying and repulsive to men that they would rather believe that it is a mere affectation of mine to cover what they call a ‘good heart’—meaning the weaknesses (usually produced by whiskey, more or less) which they would like to believe common to all the race. But in my heart of hearts I utterly despise all this sort of special pleading. When a man whimpers to me about Goethe’s coldness and selfishness, I pity him. . . . .
* The italics are mine.
25 There! that’s the real Simon Pure, with all his goods in the shop window. You may recoil as much as you like, and protest that there is a heart of gold in the back parlour, like Hall Caine’s, or Carton’s, or poor old Thackeray’s; I only reply, do my work, if you can, with that sort of heart, made of gold that any cheesecutter will slip into!”
I did not recoil or protest; I merely replied to the effect that my friend sometimes “babbled like a child,” and put the cart before the horse—good work of any kind being the outcome of character, sympathy, and experience, not (as he seemed to imply) a thing independent of them. I suggested, moreover, that it was just this sort of feeling of “Art for Art” which produced bad work, as in Goethe’s case, and I pointed out that Goethe’s literary output was an arid sandhill of platitude and self-criticism, redeemed by one solitary masterpiece, a sentimental thing which has saved the dull Titan for posterity. For the rest, I have put that statement down, in all its nakedness, as the absolute negation of all I personally think, hope, and believe, as a frank and fearless expression of the case from the other side. If my friend is right, I have been wasting my life, and there is no foothold for me in any possible world; I must go down to utter despair and darkness and dulness, not with my own, but with the conventional, Devil. But in my heart I know that the statement is at once illogical and absurd, that the only justification of Art and Humanity is personal Love, and that the deeper we feel the bond which unites us to those nearest to us, the more conscious we are of the supreme piteousness of Love and Death, the more likely are we to add a verse or a chapter to the great Human Gospel. There is nothing divine, nothing eternal, in Man, except his affections. They are the foundation of all hope, all belief, and they are the soul of all Art which is worthy of the name. The individual who feels and says that his first and only care is for fine work will never produce fine work. His best effort will be to build a house of cards, to set his poor bewildered feet on shifting sands.
It is in no spirit of irrelevance that I have quoted my anonymous friend’s extraordinary utterances, his curiously cocksure deliverance, on a subject which has hitherto occupied mankind from generation to generation, and has surpassed all others in popular interest. While I feel, quite as strongly as he or any man can do, the folly and the wickedness of dogmatising on that subject, while I am taught by conscience and experience that it is a subject always to be referred to the decision of the individual, I am nevertheless convinced that 26 the future of Literature, and more particularly of Poetry, will be concerned more than ever with the great issue between Knowledge and Religion. Doubtless, as the egregious Mr. Pope expressed it, the proper study of Mankind is Man, but the special study of the Poet, as distinguished from the prosaist, is Man in relation to the eternal problems of Life and Death. The Poet, in short, is a Prophet, a Propagandist, or nothing. I know how strong the disposition is among a certain class of men, never more numerous than at the present day, to put spiritual speculation aside, on the assumption that verification in the sphere of religious conceptions is impossible. Unfortunately, the great majority of our so-called Poets have been men of this kind, Masters of the order dear to the “essential Christian” and the Logroller, and not accredited Poets at all. In England, the true Seer, the Sacer Vates, has been always as rare as the dodo; in his stead, we have had troops of polite and energetic Singers, taking every existing idea on trust, and filling their little buckets at the fountains of English undefiled left by their predecessors. It was only about the end of the last century that descendants of the Lost Tribes of Parnassus began to be discovered—one on Rydal Mount, another at Nightmare Abbey, and still another at Hampstead. They were laughed at as they sang, of course; they were voted dull, mad, tedious, and heretical; and so far as society was concerned, they interfered in no way with the usual conventional pipings from the critic’s back yard and the vicarage garden. Still, it will be found presently that they did not live in vain, that they were not altogether powerless against the “plague of microscopes” created by Goethe; and if during the present generation the loudest poetic sounds heard have been the sounds of tinkerings inside a decaying Church, there have been notes from time to time of a bolder and more natural music. Some day in the near future, perhaps, a trimming and tinkering Poet will be an impossibility—as great an impossibility, say, as a Poet of the god Jingo or a Poet Laureate. It will be part of my task, I trust, to hasten that day on, by candidly and honestly expressing, in the face of all charges of bad taste and inexpedience, my individual opinion on the gravest subjects, and by refusing to pay any homage whatever in the pantheon of our national gods—gods long discredited by all thinking men, and only preserved, by hypocritical Statesmen and canting time-serving Singers, in order to overawe and mislead the unintelligent masses of our people.
AUTHOR AND PUBLISHER.
NOTE A.—MR. GOSSE ON BARABBAS.
On the 27th April last, at a dinner of “the Trade,” Mr Edmund Gosse, who may be described as a Publisher’s Critic, since his chief mission in life is to write little introductions to translations of foreign books published for the most part by Mr. William Heinemann, accused Authors in general, and particularly “great” Authors, of being too “greedy.” If they insisted on such exorbitant payments, they were in danger, this gentleman thought, of “killing the goose with the golden egg.” Now, I will not accuse Mr. Gosse of being a traitor to his craft; but I am going to ask him, coram populo, whether he holds a brief for the Publisher, and, if so, whether he is quite polite in calling his client a “goose?” For it is quite clear that the Goose who lays the golden egg must, from the Gossian point of view, be the Publisher; though if I were hunting for a simile, I should compare the Publisher rather to the Fox which steals the golden egg than to the bird which lays it. The Publisher lays nothing, creates nothing, is nothing, but a name on the foot of a title page or at the head of a list of books; the Author it is who creates everything, and has the first right to the produce of his life and labour. For this shameless insult to literature, made in the interest of brigandage, Mr. Edmund Gosse has been justly rebuked by the Society of Authors, which has pointed out that the Author, even when most generously treated, receives at the outside little more than half the profits of his own work; and to receive this, to demand this, is, the Publisher’s Critic in Ordinary says, to be “greedy.” But, accepting Mr. Gosse’s simile, and admitting the Publisher to be a Goose, how grateful should we be to the authors who are managing, by their courage and power, to “kill” him! Dead already, intellectually and morally, he should be dead literally—should be drummed out of the book market and buried for ever.
This pronunciamento, clearly inspired by Barabbas, shows how the wind blows, proves that Barabbas is getting more and more uneasy under the attacks of his victims. “Good heavens,” I hear him exclaiming, “how am I to live, how am I to accumulate money and enjoy luxury, if the rascally Author imitates my own noble and ancestral motto of ‘Stand and deliver?’” The reply is obvious: “My dear sir, we don’t want you to live; we want you to die, for you have lived too long. The paths of literature are strewn with the bones of those whom you have destroyed. Yon are, and always were, an anomaly and a nuisance,—worse than the prowling picture-dealer, worse than the usurer, for the last puts out his money at a modest sixty per cent., while you demand always a hundred, sometimes two hundred, and frequently a thousand. In short, Barabbas, you are a Robber and a Vulture, and we, who feed you, are ashamed of ever having suffered you to exist at all.”
NOTE B.—THE SOCIETY OF AUTHORS.
I will retract, absolutely and unreservedly, some remarks I once made adverse to this admirable Society. What I contended was that an Author should be left alone to manage his own affairs, not worried by a sort of authors’ trades-union; but I see now that I was hasty, and I have illustrated in my own person the troubles into which an Author may fall, when he is deaf to good advice. In reply to my attack, Mr. Besant merely remarked, in his good-humoured fashion, that I was out of sorts, and “needed a holiday;” and he was right. At any other time, I think I should have recognised the self-sacrifice and courage of a writer who took the trouble to leave the heights of his own well-deserved success in order to help and advise his less fortunate brethren. And I may say here, as I should have said before, that I take off my hat to the one amongst us whose page is always virile and always pure, who stands already among the leaders of prose fiction, and who possesses the gift, so rare now even among good and great 28 writers, that of Humour. Let me add to this tribute the expression of a debt of personal gratitude. When a truly great Author was neglected by his generation and insulted by his contemporaries, when the curs of journalism were barking him towards his open grave, when he was hailed by Mr. William Archer as a genius manqué, and by the egregious Trollope as “almost a genius,” whose voice was it then rang out clear and clear, and said:—“Hats off!—he is nobler than any one of us!—salute THE MASTER!” The voice was that of Walter Besant. Charles Reade is dead, but his great works in fiction survive, with the masterpieces of Scott and Dickens, to justify Mr. Besant’s praise and to rebuke the blind Lilliputians who failed to recognise the Master in their midst.
NOTE C.—THE LITERARY AGENT.
This is another member of the great Barnacle family. He has sprung up within the last few years to intermediate between the Author and the Publisher. He receives 10 per cent. at least of the Author’s earnings, and for the sake of this 10 per cent. he blocks the market to all but his own client. I find, to my surprise, that the Society of Authors approves of him, on the principle, I suppose, of “set a. thief to catch a thief;” but as his sole raison d’être is the assumption that the Author is an idiot and the Publisher a necessity, I fail to see the reason of his existence. Yet he flourishes, and publishes testimonials from bewildered authors, to the effect that through his ministrations they have received higher rates for their wares. Through the plunderers in chief and the plunderers in ordinary, through the Middleman who interposes between the Author and the Booksellers, and the agents who milk the Author on his way to the Middleman, Literature is becoming a sorry business. A few mediocrities, forced by the Middlemen and the literary Agent, choke the market, while writers of talent, who refuse to stand and deliver, fall into the workhouse. If the Publisher is an anomaly the Literary Agent is a nuisance.
NOTE D.—THE COMPOSER OF “MARITANA.”
That the cruelty and rapacity of the Publisher is not confined merely to literature may be illustrated by the following pathetic letter, addressed to a London newspaper by the son of the late Vincent Wallace. It is, of course, the old story, but it will bear repeating, till the world is sick of legalised brigandage and the creators of works of imagination receive some sort of justice:—
TO THE EDITOR OF The Weekly Sun.
“SIR,—You are a journalistic power in the land. I therefore beg to call your attention to the following facts, and will be glad if you will give them publicity in The Weekly Sun.
“I am the only son of Vincent Wallace, the composer. Though others made fortunes out of my father’s works, he—llke many a man of genius before him—died so poor that his publishers were good enough to bury him.
“As there was no more money to be made out of the dead composer (his posthumous opera being quite unfinished), my mother and myself were left unaided to fight the bitter battle of life as best we might.
“Mrs. Wallace had to depend on two elder sisters; and I (brought up without a profession—for my father would not let me learn a note of music), had to turn to whatever offered, passing from tutorships to private secretaryships, and drifting finally into journalism.
“Of late, I regret to say, we have fallen upon evil days. Since the death of both her sisters, my mother (now in her eighty-second year), has been left with wholly inadequate means of support, while I, her only son (sixty-two), through ill-health and the collapse of the journal I was sub-editor of for some years past—am placed hors de combat and rendered powerless to help her.
“To make bad worse, my father’s old friends have died off, and, as far as I know, we seem, unfortunately for us, to have outlived them all.
“The old order has changed, and the new knows us not, for a great German wave has passed over the world of Music, driving poor Melody—with both her fingers in her ears—before it. And yet there is an astonishing vitality left in some of the old stuff which refuses to be snuffed out. For instance, the 15th 29 of the present month is the jubilee anniversary of evergreen “Maritana,” first produced at Drury Lane, November 15, 1845.
“During the intervening half-century, my father’s simple ballad opera has been played innumerable times at home and abroad.
“It has delighted hundreds and hundreds of thousands of unpretentious admirers of melodious music, and has put money into many pockets, but, mirabile dictu, during all those years not a single performance has ever been given for our benefit, although we have had sore need of it.
“In Australia, New Zealand, and the other British Colonies—as well as in America—it has been played times out of mind, but we have not received from the Antipodes a penny piece of the thousands due to us for fees, owing to an extraordinary “Statute of Limitations” of one year, which has allowed us to be robbed with perfect impunity, not only abroad, but at home.
“Will not some of the generous-hearted people of these Islands show some consideration for the widow and son of a composer whose melodies are known wherever there is a cultivated English-speaking home the wide world over?—
Yours faithfully, “WM. VINCENT WALLACE.
“1, Duke-street, Great Russell-street, W.C.
“November 7, 1895.”
NOTE E.—MISS BRADDON AND MUDIE’S.
The following letter speaks for itself. It is pleasant to see the Library Tyrant hoisted with his own petard:—
TO THE EDITOR OF The Daily Telegraph.
“SIR,—It has come to my knowledge that the following circular is being issued by Mudie’s Select Library to all subscribers who ask for my new novel, published for me in the usual three-volume form, by Messrs. Simpkin, Marshall & Co., last Wednesday:—
“SONS OF FIRE.
“The publishers having decided to publish this book in three volumes, at a prohibitive price, the directors are compelled to wait for the production of the one-volume edition, which (judging from past experience) will be in a very few weeks.”
“Now, Sir, the two statements, or rather mis-statements, in the above circular can be disposed of in two sentences.
“1. The ‘prohibitive price’ asked for ‘Sons of Fire’ is the price paid by Mudie’s Library for every one of the three-volume novels published for me during the thirty-three years in which I have been known to the reading public.
“2. No cheap edition of any novel of mine has appeared within less than six months after the publication of the book in three volumes, while of late years the interval has been eight months.
“Messrs. Mudie have taken upon themselves to prophesy a rapid production of ‘Sons of Fire’ in one volume; but I am happy to assure the West-end, suburban, and provincial librarians, who are freely circulating my new book, that no other or cheaper edition of ‘Sons of Fire’ will appear until August, 1896.—
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
“M. E. BRADDON,
Richmond, September 21, 1895.”
NOTE F.—ADVERTISING METHODS.
At the present moment of writing, Fiction covers the fair fields of Literature and chokes them like a fungus growth. It is in Fiction that Barabbas chiefly deals, and he has a thousand devices to foist the ware on the public; so that to the Puff literary is pended the Puff commercial, and again and again, even in newspapers of reputation, we read paragraphs like the following:—
“It is understood that Mr. Brown Jones will receive close upon £3,000 for the English and American serial rights of his new story. His income from the 30 book rights of the story will naturally depend upon its success, but people interested in such matters calculate that it will at least amount to £5,000. The hopes built upon the novel are illustrated by the fact that an offer of £6,000 paid in advance on royalties, was made to Mr. Brown Jones for the whole English rights.”
“We are informed that 30,000 copies of Mr. Peter Peebles’ last masterpiece, “She draigled all her Petticoatie,” have already been subscribed for and exhausted, and that another edition of 10,000 is being printed. Mr. Peebles is now at work on a new tale of peasant life, for the serial rights of which Messrs. Haggis & Co., the enterprising Publishers, have offered him £2,000.”
“The Paisley edition of Mr. Simon MacTappertit’s Complete Works, containing all that great writer has left behind him, has been completely exhausted before publication, and it is calculated that at least £5,000 will be netted by the sales. Encouraged by such success, the publishers announce a Cabinet Edition in twenty volumes, and a Miniature Edition in twenty-five volumes. We publish in another column some touching reminiscences of MacTappertit, written by a gentleman who went to school with him in Paisley.”
Now, personal gossip about great men, or about even little men, may be all very well, but surely the publication of trash like the above is degrading to all concerned? “People interested in such matters!” Who in the world cares twopence what Mr. Brown Jones gets for his novels, or how many guineas are netted by the publishers of Mr. Peebles? Our Butcher does not take the trouble to advertise how many legs of mutton he sells in the week, nor does our Haberdasher rave in print over the demand for plain or coloured hose. But under the present conditions of Literature and of Journalism any indecency is tolerated. The nod of an ex-Prime Minister or the blessing of a Bishop are of more importance to Barabbas than modest merit of any kind, in days when foolish people rush to buy books which, they are assured, so many other foolish people have rushed to buy. The Publisher hocusses the Public, and the Librarian backs the Publisher, and trash, which under honester trade conditions would go to the buttermen, is eagerly bought and read. Hence the endless supply of “Masterpieces!” Hence the daily spectacle of Authors posing on the platform as noble souls who write for the good of Humanity, while their agents are telling us in the newspapers how much they pocket by their beneficence! In times when men of real genius wrote fiction, all these devices of the Middleman, all these tricks and lies of the trade, would have been publicly resented. Now——!
I see no reason whatever why Authors should not realise to the utmost the fruits of their industry and popularity; I, indeed, see every reason that their interests should be protected; but as long as Barabbas exists, as long as countless Middlemen have to share in the results of literary success, there will be no hearing whatever for writers who reject the intercessions of Mr. Pandar and decline the services of Mr. Puff. Meantime, there is reason to hope that the importunity of Barabbas and his pet Authors will defeat itself. The public will soon begin to inquire, not how many copies of a book have been sold, but how few—arguing that, since the “masterpieces” which sell by tens of thousands are generally worthless, those books which are not masterpieces, and which scarcely sell at all, may possibly be worth inspecting. When that time comes we shall read in the newspapers, instead of the Puffs personal and commercial now so familiar, something like the following:—
“Mr. John Milton’s new work has only sold a dozen copies, and the remainder of the edition is on offer to Messrs. Margarine & Son, the famous buttermen. The author wishes it to be distinctly understood that it is not ‘a Masterpiece,’ and that, so far from being written from purely philanthropic motives, it was produced with a view to a settlement with his landlady.”
“The supreme beauty and loveliness of Mr. Shelley’s new poem may be inferred from the fact that it has been refused by twenty publishers, and that the opinions of the Commander of the Channel Fleet and of the Bishop of Putney, to each of whom the manuscript has been submitted, are decidedly unfavourable. Another proof that Mr. Shelley must possess a spark of the divine fire lies in the fact that her Majesty the Queen has expressed her intention of never, under any circumstances, perusing Mr. Shelley‘s works.”
Seriously, the folly and impudence of Barabbas and his favourite Authors 31 can scarcely go much further. In some way or other, Literature will vindicate itself. If it does not, no writer of any self-respect will care to call himself a man of letters, and. the profession of authorship will become a trade, like that of the patent medicine seller and the vendors of “Pears’ Soap” and “Cameo Cigarettes.”
NOTE H.—TESTS OF POPULARITY.
This is the sort of rubbish with which the Christian Daily Chronicle regales its readers:—
“A few weeks ago we suggested that the popularity of George Eliot was waning, a position which Mr. Augustine Birrell challenged. It is not possible to settle the matter definitely by reference to publisher’s accounts; but the bibliophiles’ market is open to us. In the current number of the Illustrated London News, C. K. S. brings forward some interesting figures which go to support our contention. Thus, a few years ago, the first edition of ‘Scenes from Clerical Life’ would fetch £15; now £8 is the limit. An even more remarkable decline is in the letters. ‘Time was,’ he says. ‘when a very short letter would fetch £10 or £12, now it is hard to get £5 for a long one.’” (! !)
Other journals invite Plébiscites to determine the relative merit and market-value of Authors! In short, the impudence and vulgarity of Journalism, in its discussion of literary men and matters, is absolutely amazing, and Barabbas, I honestly believe, is at the bottom of it all.
NOTE I.—THE AUTHOR AS DRAMATIST.
The same superstition, which regards the Publisher as the Wise Man, who benevolently makes the Fool, or Author, possible, takes the same view of the theatrical Manager. An English Dramatist of the first rank, famous alike for his dramatic genius and his admirable knowledge of stage technique, puts the matter as follows, in the course of some remarks on a certain law suit:—
“My experience of these things goes to convince me that Juries (and Judges, too) attach enormous importance to the title ‘Manager.’ He is, in their eyes, a man who manages—a smart, clever fellow, who takes an Author's jejune and imperfect MS., trims it into shape, makes it smart and workmanlike, ‘casts’ the piece, and probably suggests all the lines that get laughs! This is the attitude that —— is supposed (by Judges and Juries) to take with reference to my work, although, of course, he never thinks even of making a suggestion. It is very difficult to disabuse Judges and Juries of this curious fallacy.”
In short, the Author as such is looked upon as an Idiot all round, blind to his own interests, ignorant of his own business—a child in a go-cart needing a Middleman’s hand to lead him; and it is the interest of the Middleman to foster this mistaken impression, since, so long as it exists, his victim will never be looked upon as a responsible agent.