The Story Of A Book, by Richard Middleton


The history of a book must necessarily begin with the history of its author, for surely in these enlightened days neither the youngest nor the oldest of critics can believe that works of art are found under gooseberry-bushes or in the nests of storks. In truth, I am by no means sure that everybody knew this before the publication of "The Man Shakespeare," and for the sake of a mystified posterity it may be well to explain that there was once a school of criticism that thought it indecent to pry into that treasure-house of individuality from which, if we reject the nursery hypotheses mentioned above, it is clearly obvious that authors derive their works. That the drama must needs be closely related to the dramatist is just one of those simple discoveries that invariably elude the subtle professional mind; but in this wiser hour I may be permitted to assume that the author was the conscious father of his novel, and that he did not find it surprisingly in his pocket one morning, like a bad shilling taken in change from the cabman overnight.

Before he published his novel at the ripe age of thirty-seven the author had lived an irreproachable and gentlemanly life. Born with at least a German-silver spoon in his mouth, he passed, after a normally eventful childhood, through a respectable public school, and spent several agreeable years at Cambridge without taking a degree. He then went into his uncle's office in the City, where he idled daily from ten to four, till in due course he was admitted to a partnership, which enabled him to reduce his hours of idleness to eleven to three. These details become important when we reflect that from his childhood on the author had a great deal of time at his disposal. If he had been entirely normal, he would have accepted the conventions of the society to which he belonged, and devoted himself to motoring, bridge, and the encouragement of the lighter drama. But some deep-rooted habit of his childhood, or even perhaps some remote hereditary taint, led him to spend an appreciable fraction of his leisure time in the reading of works of fiction. Unlike most lovers of light literature, he read with a certain mental concentration, and was broad-minded enough to read good novels as well as bad ones.

It is a pleasant fact that it is impossible to concentrate one's mind on anything without in time becoming wiser, and in the course of years the author became quite a skilful critic of novels. From the first he had allowed his reading to colour his impressions of life, and had obediently lived in a world of blacks and whites, of heroes and heroines, of villains and adventuresses, until the grateful discovery of the realistic school of fiction permitted him to believe that men and women were for the most part neither good nor bad, but tabby. Moreover, the leisurely reading of many sentences had given him some understanding of the elements of style. He perceived that some combinations of words were illogical, and that others were unlovely to the ear; and at the same time he acquired a vocabulary and a knowledge of grammar and punctuation that his earlier education had failed to give him. He read new novels at his writing-table, and took pleasure in correcting the mistakes of their authors in ink. When he had done this, he would hand them to his wife, who always read the end first, and, indeed, rarely pursued her investigation of a book beyond the last chapter.

We buy knowledge with illusions, and pay a high price for it, for the acquirement of quite a small degree of wisdom will deprive us of a large number of pleasant fancies. So it was with the author, who found his joy in novel-reading diminishing rapidly as his critical knowledge increased. He was no longer able to lose himself between the covers of a romance, but slid his paper-knife between the pages of a book with an unwholesome readiness to be irritated by the ignorance and folly of the novelist. His destructive criticism of works of fiction became so acute that it was natural that his unlettered friends should suggest that he himself ought to write a novel. For a long while he was content to receive the flattering suggestion with a reticent smile that masked his conviction that there was a difference between criticism and creation. But as he grew older the imperfections in the books he read ceased to give him the thrill of the successful explorer in sight of the expected, and time began to trickle too slowly through his idle fingers. One day he sat down and wrote "Chapter I." at the head of a sheet of quarto paper.

It seemed to him that the difficulty was only one of selection, and he wrote two-thirds of a novel with a breathless ease of creation that made him marvel at himself and the pitiful struggles of less gifted novelists. Then in a moment of insight he picked up his manuscript and realised that what he had written was childishly crude. He had felt his story while he wrote it, but somehow or other he had failed to get his emotions on paper, and he saw quite clearly that it was worse and not better than the majority of the books which he had held up to ridicule.

There was a certain doggedness in his character that might have made him a useful citizen but for that unfortunate hereditary spoon, and he wrote "Chapter I." at the head of a new sheet of quarto paper long before the library fire had reached the heart of his first luckless manuscript. This time he wrote more slowly, and with a waning confidence that failed him altogether when he was about half-way through. Reading the fragment dispassionately he thought there were good pages in it, but, taken as a whole, it was unequal, and moved forward only by fits and starts. He began again with his late manuscript spread about him on the table for reference. At the fifth attempt he succeeded in writing a whole novel.

In the course of his struggles he had acquired a philosophy of composition. Especially he had learned to shun those enchanted hours when the labour of creation became suspiciously easy, for he had found by experience that the work he did in these moments of inspiration was either bad in itself or out of key with the preceding chapters. He thought that inspiration might be useful to poets or writers of short stories, but personally as a novelist he found it a nuisance. By dint of hard work, however, he succeeded in eliminating its evil influence from his final draft. He told himself that he had no illusions as to the merits of his book. He knew he was not a man of genius, but he knew also that the grammar and the punctuation of his novel were far above the average of such works, and although he could not read Sir Thomas Browne or Walter Pater with pleasure, he felt sure that his book was written in a straightforward and gentlemanly style. He was prepared to be told that his use of the colon was audacious, and looked forward with pleasure to an agreeable controversy on the question.

He read his book to his friends, who made suggestions that would have involved its rewriting from one end to the other. He read it to his enemies, who told him that it was nearly good enough to publish; he read it to his wife, who said that it was very nice, and that it was time to dress for dinner. No one seemed to realise that it was the most important thing he had ever done in his life. This quickened his eagerness to get it published?an eagerness only tempered by a very real fear of those knowing dogs, the critics. He could not forget that he had criticised a good many books himself in terms that would have made the authors abandon their profession if they had but heard his strictures; and he had read notices in the papers that would have made him droop with shame if they had referred to any work of his. When these sombre thoughts came to him he would pick up his book and read it again, and in common fairness he had to admit to himself that he found it uncommonly good.

One day, after a whole batch of ungrammatical novels had reached him from the library, he posted his manuscript to his favourite publisher. He had heard stories of masterpieces many times rejected, so he did not tell his wife what he had done.

II. The Sleepy Publisher

The publisher to whom our author had confided his manuscript stood, like all publishers, at the very head of his profession. His business was conducted on sound conservative lines, which means that though he had regretfully abandoned the three-volume novel for the novel published at six shillings, he was not among the intrepid revolutionaries who were beginning to produce new fiction at a still lower price. Besides novels he published solid works of biography at thirty-one and six, art books at a guinea, travel books at fifteen shillings, flighty historical works at twelve-and-sixpence, and cheap editions of Montaigne's Essays and "Robinson Crusoe" at a shilling. Some idea of his business methods may be derived from the fact that it pleased him to reflect that all the other publishers were producing exactly the same books as he was. And though he would admit that the trade had been ruined by competition and the outrageous royalties demanded by successful authors, and, further, that he made a loss on every separate department of his business, in some mysterious fashion the business as a whole continued to pay him very well. He left the active part of the management to a confidential clerk, and contented himself with signing cheques and interviewing authors.

With such a publisher the fate of our author's book was never in doubt. If it was lacking in those qualities that might be expected to commend it to the reading public, it was conspicuously rich in those merits that determine the favourable judgment of publishers' readers. It was above all things a gentlemanly book, without violence and without eccentricities. It was carefully and grammatically written; but it had not that exotic literary flavour which is so tiresome on a long railway journey. It could be put into the hands of any schoolgirl, and at most would merely send her to sleep. The only thing that could be said against it was that the author's dread of inspiration had made it grievously dull, but it was the publisher's opinion that after a glut of sensational fiction the six-shilling public had come to regard dullness as the hall-mark of literary merit. He had no illusions as to its possible success, but, on the other hand, he knew that he could not lose any money on it, so he wrote a letter to the author inviting him to an interview.

As soon as he had read the letter the author told himself that he had been certain all along that his book would be accepted. Nevertheless, he went to the interview moved by certain emotional flutterings against which circumstance had guarded him ever since his boyhood. He found this mild excitation of the nervous system by no means unpleasant. It was like digesting a new and subtle liqueur that made him light-footed and tingled in the tips of his fingers. He recalled a phrase that had greatly pleased him in the early days of his novel. "As the sun colours flowers, so Art colours life." It seemed to him that this was beginning to come true, and that life was already presenting itself to him in a gayer, brighter dress. He reached the publisher's office, therefore, in an unwontedly receptive mood, and was tremendously impressed by the rudeness of the clerks, who treated authors as mendicants and expressed their opinion of literature by handling books as if they were bundles of firewood.

The publisher looked at him under heavy eyelids, recognised his position in the social scale, and reflected with satisfaction that his acquaintances could be relied on to purchase at least a hundred copies. The interview did not at all take the lines that the author in his innocence had expected, and in a surprisingly short space of time he found himself bowed out, with the duplicate of a contract in the pocket of his overcoat. In the outer office the confidential clerk took him in hand and led him to the door of an enormous cellar, lit by electricity and filled from one end to the other with bales and heaps of books. "Books!" said the confidential clerk, with the smile of a gamekeeper displaying his hand-reared pheasants. "There are a great many," the author said timidly.

"Of course, we do not keep our stock here," the clerk explained. "These are just samples." It was sometimes necessary to remind inexperienced writers that the publication of their first book was only a trivial incident in the history of a great publishing house. The author had a sad vision of his novel as a little brick in a monstrous pyramid built of books, and the clerk mentally decided that he was not the kind of man to turn up every day at the office to ask them how they were getting on.

The author was a little dazed when he emerged into the street and the sunshine. His book, which an hour before had seemed the most important thing in the world, had, become almost insignificant in the light of that vast collection of printed matter, and in some subtle way he felt that he had dwindled with it. The publisher had praised it without enthusiasm and had not specified any of its merits; he had not even commented on his fantastic use of the colon. The author had lived with it now for many months?it had become a part of his personality, and he felt that he had betrayed himself in delivering it into the hands of strangers who could not understand it. He had the reticence of the well-bred Englishman, and though he told himself reassuringly that his novel in no way reflected his private life, he could not quite overcome the sentiment that it was a little vulgar to allow alien eyes to read the product of his most intimate thoughts. He had really been shocked at the matter-of-fact way in which every one at the office had spoken of his book, and the sight of all the other books with which it would soon be inextricably confused had emphasised the painful impression. This all seemed to rob the author's calling of its presumed distinction, and he looked at the men and women who passed him on the pavement, and wondered whether they too had written books.

This mood lasted for some weeks, at the end of which time he received the proofs, which he read and re-read with real pleasure before setting himself to correcting them with meticulous care. He performed this task with such conscientiousness, and made so many minor alterations?he changed most of those flighty colons to more conventional semicolons?that the confidential clerk swore terribly when he glanced at the proofs before handing them to a boy, with instructions to remove three-quarters of the offending emendations. A week or two later there happened one of those strange little incidents that make modern literary history. It was a bright, sunny afternoon; the publisher had been lunching with the star author of the firm, a novelist whose books were read wherever the British flag waved and there was a circulating library to distribute them, and now, in the warm twilight of the lowered blinds he was enjoying profound thoughts, delicately tinted by burgundy and old port. The shrewdest men make mistakes, and certainly it was hardly wise of the confidential clerk to choose this peaceful moment to speak about our author's book. "I suppose we shall print a thousand?" he said. "Five thousand!" ejaculated the publisher. What was he thinking about? Was he filling up an imaginary income-tax statement, or was he trying to estimate the number of butterflies that seemed to float in the amber shadows of the room? The clerk did not know. "I suppose you mean one thousand, sir?" he said gently. The publisher was now wide awake. He had lost all his butterflies, and he was not the man to allow himself to be sleepy in the afternoon. "I said five thousand!" The clerk bit his lip and left the room.

The author never heard of this brief dialogue; probably if he had been present he would have missed its significance. He would never have connected it with the flood of paragraphs that appeared in the Press announcing that the acumen of the publisher had discovered a new author of genius?paragraphs wherein he was compared with Dickens, Thackeray, Flaubert, Richardson, Sir Walter Besant, Thomas Browne, and the author of "An Englishwoman's Love-letters." As it was, it did not occur to him to wonder why the publisher should spend so much money on advertising a book of which he had seemed to have but a half-hearted appreciation. After all it was his book, and the author felt that it was only natural that as the hour of publication drew near the world of letters should show signs of a dignified excitement.

III. The Critic Errant

There are some emotions so intimate that the most intrepid writer hesitates to chronicle them lest it should be inferred that he himself is in the confessional. We have endeavoured to show our author as a level-headed English-man with his nerves well under control and an honest contempt for emotionalism in the stronger sex; but his feelings in the face of the first little bundle of reviews sent him by the press-cutting agency would prove this portrait incomplete. He noticed with a vague astonishment that the flimsy scraps of paper were trembling in his fingers like banknotes in the hands of a gambler, and he laid them down on the breakfast-table in disgust of the feminine weakness. This unmistakable proof that he had written a book, a real book, made him at once happy and uneasy. These fragments of smudged prints were his passport into a new and delightful world; they were, it might be said, the name of his destination in the great republic of letters, and yet he hesitated to look at them. He heard of the curious blindness of authors that made it impossible for them to detect the most egregious failings in their own work, and it occurred to him that this might be his malady. Why: had he published his book? He felt at that moment that he had taken too great a risk. It would have been so easy to have had it privately printed and contented himself with distributing it among his friends. But these people were paid for writing about books, these critics who had sent Keats to his gallipots and Swinburne to his fig-tree, might well have failed to have recognised that his book was sacred, because it was his own.

When he had at last achieved a fatalistic tranquillity, he once more picked up the notices, and this time he read them through carefully. The Rutlandshire Gazette quoted Shakespeare, the Thrums Times compared him with Christopher North, the Stamford-bridge Herald thought that his style resembled that of Macaulay, but they were unanimous in praising his book without reservation. It seemed to the author that he was listening to the authentic voice of fame. He rested his chin on his hand and dreamed long dreams.

He could afford in this hour of his triumph to forget the annoyances he had undergone since his book was first accepted. The publisher, with a large first edition to dispose of, had been rather more than firm with the author. He had changed the title of the book from "Earth's Returns"?a title that had seemed to the author dignified and pleasantly literary?to "The Improbable Marquis," which seemed to him to mean nothing at all. Moreover, instead of giving the book a quiet and scholarly exterior, he had bound it in boards of an injudicious heliotrope, inset with a nasty little coloured picture of a young woman with a St. Bernard dog. This binding revolted the author, who objected, with some reason, that in all his book there was no mention of a dog of that description, or, indeed, of any dog at all. The book was wrapped in an outer cover that bore a recommendation of its contents, starting with a hideous split infinitive and describing it as an exquisite social comedy written from within. On the whole it seemed to the author that his book was flying false and undesirable colours, and since art lies outside the domesticities, he was hardly relieved when his wife told him that she thought the binding was very pretty. The author had shuddered no less at the little paragraphs that the publisher had inserted in the newspapers concerning his birth and education, wherein he was bracketed with other well-known writers whose careers at the University had been equally undistinguished. But now that, like Byron, he found himself famous among the bacon and eggs, he was in no mood to remember these past vexations. As soon as he had finished breakfast he withdrew himself to his study and wrote half an essay on the Republic of Letters.

In a country wherein fifteen novels or is it fifty are published every day of the year, the publisher's account of the goods he sells is bound to have a certain value. Money talks, as Mr. Arnold Bennett once observed indeed today it is grown quite garrulous and when a publisher spends a lot of money on advertising a book, the inference is that some one believes the book to be good. This will not secure a book good notices, but it will secure it notices of some kind or other, and that, as every publisher knows, is three-quarters of the battle. The average critic today is an old young man who has not failed in literature or art, possibly because he has not tried to accomplish anything in either. By the time he has acquired some skill in criticism he has generally ceased to be a critic, through no fault of his own, but through sheer weariness of spirit. When a man is very young he can dance upon everyone who has not written a masterpiece with a light heart, but after this period of joyous savagery there follows fatigue and a certain pity. The critic loses sight of his first magnificent standards, and becomes grateful for even the smallest merit in the books he is compelled to read. Like a mother giving a powder to her child, he is at pains to disguise his timid censure with a teaspoonful of jam. As the years pass by he becomes afraid of these books that continue to appear in unreasonable profusion, and that have long ago destroyed his faith in literature, his love of reading, his sense of humour, and the colouring matter of his hair. He realises, with a dreadful sense of the infinite, that when he is dead and buried this torrent of books will overwhelm the individualities of his successors, bound like himself to a lifelong examination of the insignificant.

Timidity is certainly the note of modern criticism, which is rarely roused to indignation save when confronted by the infrequent outrage of some intellectual anarchist. If the critics of the more important journals were not so enthusiastic as their provincial confreres, they were at least gentle with "The Improbable Marquis." A critic of genius would have said that such books were not worth writing, still less worth reading. An outspoken critic would have said that it was too dull to be an acceptable presentation of a life that we all find interesting. As it was, most of the critics praised the style in which it was written because it was quite impossible to call it an enthralling or even an entertaining book. Some of the younger critics, who still retained an interest in their own personalities, discovered that its vacuity made it a convenient mirror by means of which they would display the progress of their own genius. In common gratitude they had to close these manifestations of their merit with a word or two in praise of the book they were professing to review. "The Improbable Marquis" was very favourably received by the Press in general.

It was, as the publisher made haste to point out in his advertisements, a book of the year, and, reassured by its flippant exterior, the libraries and the public bought it with avidity. The author pasted his swollen collection of newspaper-cuttings into an album, and carefully revised his novel in case a second edition should be called for. There was one review which he had read more often than any of the others, and nevertheless he hesitated to include it in his collection. "This book," wrote the anonymous reviewer, "is as nearly faultless a book may be that possesses no positive merit. It differs only from seven-eighths of the novels that are produced today in being more carefully written. The author had nothing to say, and he has said it." That was all, three malignant lines in a paper of no commercial importance, the sort of thing that was passed round the publisher's office with an appreciative chuckle. In the face of the general amiability of the Press, such a notice in an obscure journal could do the book no harm.

Only the author sat hour after hour in his study with that diminutive scrap of paper before him on the table, and wondered if it was true.

IV. Fame

It was some little time before the public, the mysterious section of the public that reads works of fiction, discovered that the publisher, aided by the normal good-humour of the critics, had persuaded them to sacrifice some of their scant hours of intellectual recreation on a work of portentous dullness. Therefor the literary audience has its sense of humour they amused themselves for a while by recommending the book to their friends, and the sales crept steadily up to four thousand, and there stayed with an unmistakable air of finality. If the book had had any real literary merit its life would have started at that point, for the weary comments of reviewers and the strident outcries of publishers tend to obscure rather than reveal the permanent value of a book. But six months after publication "The Improbable Marquis" was completely forgotten, save by the second-hand booksellers, who found themselves embarrassed with a number of books for which no one seemed anxious to pay six-pence, in spite of the striking heliotrope binding. The publisher, who was aware of this circumstance, offered the author five hundred copies at cost price, and the author bought them, and sent them to public libraries, without examining the motive for his action too closely. There were moments when he regarded the success of his book with suspicion. He would have preferred the praise that had greeted it to have been less violent and more clearly defined. Of all the criticisms, the only one that lingered in his mind was the curt comment, "The author had nothing to say, and he has said it." He thought it was unfair, but he had remembered it. At the same time, in examining his own character, he could not find that masterfulness that seemed to him necessary in a great man. But for the most part he was content to accept his new honours with a placid satisfaction, and to smile genially upon a world that was eager to credit him with qualities that possibly he did not possess. For if his book was no longer read his fame as an author seemed to be established on a rock. Society, with a larger S than that which he had hitherto adorned, was delighted to find after two notable failures that genius could still be presentable, and the author was rather more than that. He was rich, he had that air of the distinguished army officer which falls so easily to those who occupy the pleasant position of sleeping partner in the City, and he had just the right shade of amused modesty with which to meet inquiries as to his literary intentions. In a word, he was an author of whom any country?even France, that prolific parent of presentable authors?would have been proud. Even his wife, who had thought it an excellent joke that her husband should have written a book, had to take him seriously as an author when she found that their social position was steadily improving. With feminine tact she gave him a fountain-pen on his birthday, from which he was meant to conclude that she believed in his mission as an artist.

Meanwhile, with the world at his feet, the author spent an appreciable part of his time in visiting the second-hand bookshops and buying copies of his book absurdly cheap. He carried these waifs home and stored them in an attic secretly, for he would have found it hard to explain his motives to the intellectually childless. In the first flush of authorship he had sent a number of presentation copies of his book to writers whom he admired, and he noticed without bitterness that some of these volumes with their neatly turned inscriptions were coming back to him through this channel. At all the second-hand bookshops he saw long-haired young men looking over the books without buying them, and he thought these must be authors, but he was too shy to speak to them, though he had a great longing to know other writers. He wanted to ask them questions concerning their methods of work, for he was having trouble with his second book. He had read an article in which the writer said that the great fault of modern fiction was that authors were more concerned to produce good chapters than to produce good books. It seemed to him that in his first book he had only aimed at good sentences, but he knew no one with whom he could discuss such matters.

One day he found a copy of "The Improbable Marquis" in the Charing Cross Road, and was glancing through it with absent-minded interest, when a voice at his elbow said, "I shouldn't buy that if I were you, sir. It's no good!" He looked up and saw a wild young man, with bright eyes and an untidy black beard. "But it's mine; I wrote it," cried the author. The young man stared at him in dismay. "I'm sorry; I didn't know," he blurted out, and faded away into the crowd. The author gazed after him wistfully, regretting that he had not had presence of mind enough to ask him to lunch. Perhaps the young man could have told him how he ought to write his second book.

For somehow or other, at the very moment when his literary position seemed most secure in the eyes of his wife and his friends, the author had lost all confidence in his own powers. He shut himself up in his study every night, and was supposed by an admiring and almost timorous household to be producing masterpieces, when in reality he was conducting a series of barren skirmishes between the critical and the creative elements of his nature. He would write a chapter or two in a fine fury of composition, and then would read what he had written with intense disgust. He felt that his second book ought to be better than his first, and he doubted whether he would even be able to write anything half so good. In his hour of disillusionment he recalled the anonymous critic who had treated "The Improbable Marquis" with such scant respect, and he wrote to him asking him to expand his judgment. He was prepared to be wounded by the answer, but the form it took surprised him. In reply to his temperate and courteous letter the critic sent a postcard bearing only five short words "Why did you write it?"

This was bad manners, but the author was sensible enough to see that it might be good criticism, especially as he found some difficulty in answering the question. Why had he written a book? Not for money, or for fame, or to express a personality of which he saw no reason to be proud. All his friends had said that he ought to write a novel, and he had thought that he could write a better one than the average. But he had to admit that such motives seemed to him insufficient. There was, perhaps, some mysterious force that drove men to create works of art, and the critic had seen that his book had lacked this necessary impulse. In the light of this new theory the author was roused by a sense of injustice. He felt that it should be possible for anyone to write a good book if they took sufficient pains, and he set himself to work again with a savage and unproductive energy.

It seemed to him that in spite of his effort to bear in mind that the whole should be greater than any part, his chapters broke up into sentences and his sentences into forlorn and ungregarious words. When he looked to his first book for comfort he found the same horrid phenomenon taking place in its familiar pages. Sometimes when he was disheartened by his fruitless efforts he slipped out into the streets, fixing his attention on concrete objects to rest his tired mind. But he could not help noticing that London had discovered the secret which made his intellectual life a torment. The streets were more than a mere assemblage of houses, London herself was more than a tangled skein of streets, and overhead heaven was more than a meeting-place of individual stars. What was this secret that made words into a book, houses into cities, and restless and measurable stars into an unchanging and immeasurable universe?