Love and Dentistry: The Editor’s Lament: 1896

 

Floral Poetry and the Language of Flowers, 1877

Floral Poetry and the Language of Flowers, 1877

WITH THE TRADE.

Perhaps it is a waste of time to go on threshing the same old straw, and trying to point out, even negatively, the A B C of the trade of letters. Such counsels reach many who might do without them; but those whom unregenerate nature prompts to write on both sides of the paper and roll their manuscripts will go on as before. Not that they are above receiving instruction—they desire it, and “all there is” of it; but they have no idea what or how much they want. They think they can acquire the art in two lessons, and become professional writers at good rates after a week’s practice. Here are two examples, which should be given verbatim et literatim:

“Messrs, I would like to become a contributor to your magazine. I write you asking “What kind of short stories or serials you except?

“What rules authors must comply with to have you except their MSS ?”

This deserves an explicit answer. “Authors” must learn to spell: after mastering the difficulties of orthography, they should spend five years—in some cases ten or even twenty—in reading, meditation, and converse with the world, before attempting to write for publication.

“Will you put these few lines in your magazine. It would please me very much to see them in print.”

(No doubt; but would it please other people? That is the question.)

“I am writing a book. When I have finished it, what must I do about it; that is, if you take it, what will you allow me on each book, that is, if the said book be worth a dollar each.”

It wouldn’t, you see: it would probably be dear at three cents.

We have here two distinct delusions, both wide-spread. One is that anybody, with or without brains, education, knowledge, or special preparation, can take up the writer’s trade; the other, that any editor or literary person can with a few strokes of his pen supply all necessary information and remove obstacles from the aspirant’s path.

Some of them begin young, as may be seen by this, enclosing “a few verses” :

“I am in the senior year in Blank University, seventeen years old, and editor of the college magazine. Of course this is the usual thing, college poetry. At the request of admiring friends and relatives I send a recent effusion.”

You have done very well to be at seventeen what you say you are. But don’t you know that between that and enlightening a larger audience there is a long step, or rather many steps? In all literature, very few things of the least value have been done at seventeen. Your admiring friends, as usual, are bad advisers. They should have told you to get your Bible and Concordance and look up the text about tarrying at Jericho.

Here is another such, with the added plea of poverty:

“I venture to send you my first attempt at writing for publication. I am anxious to help myself, as my father is a clergyman on a small salary and I am in my last year in college.”

Get papers to copy for a lawyer, or reporting for your local paper. Your circumstances and desires, while they might help you to find work about home, add nothing to the value of your literary efforts; and a “first attempt” can hardly by any possibility have any value.

“I hope you will give the story the most favorable hearing possible, for I am a poor woman, and can ill afford to lose the time I have put into it.”

Say that to those who advised you to this attempt: we didn’t. In all probability you might better have put your time into plain sewing, or preserving, or any form of useful labor.

Here is a case of another sort, and out of the common:

Please deal justly with me, as I have only a short time to live, and a great many stories to write.”

Why should you have a great many stories to write? Who expects it of you? Who imposes such a duty on you? Not the public, surely: the public gets more stories than it has time to read.

“I have a long poem, three thousand words, that I would like to submit to you for approval.”

Nobody wants poems of that length, or near it: nobody would read them if we were to print them. This is a cold, mechanical, materialistic age; “poetry is a drug,” and drugs are least objectionable in small doses.

There are many people who mistake an editorial office for a bureau of revision. One of these wants “a specific criticism, rather than the inevitable printed slip so discouraging to would-be writers.” If editors had single manuscripts to deal with, rather than scores and hundreds; if they and their publishers were philanthropists, with no living to make; if it didn’t matter whether the day’s work were finished with the day, or left over to week after next; then it might be possible to meet these demands. But, even then, an altruist of any prudence could hardly gratify this correspondent:

“If the accompanying manuscript is not wanted for publication, please mark with a cross in the list below, to indicate in which grade you honestly consider it belongs.

“Excellent.

“Good.

“Middling.

“Poor.”

This is not an exhaustive classification by any means, and the criticism thus conveyed would be of small value. But imagine the writer’s wrath at getting back his (or her) commumcation marked “poor” or “middling”! An editor makes enemies enough by simply returning MSS. which the writers feel to be much better than most that he prints: why should he go out of his way to add insult (as it would be considered in many cases) to injury?

“I have convinced myself that there is some merit in the enclosed short story, otherwise I would not trouble you to examine it. If unavailable, I should esteem it most highly, in returning MS., if you would spare me a word saying whether or not you found the story entirely wanting in merit.”

These two sentences don’t seem to fit together. If you have formed a definite and positive opinion on a given subject, why ask for another fellow’s, unless to prove (what you may have already suspected) that he is an ass? It is a free country: nobody denies your right to believe, if you like, that your work is admirable, that you are an unappreciated genius, and that those who think otherwise are soulless numskulls. An editor, if he understands his business, does not pretend that his judgment of a MS. is final and infallible. It may contain beauties that escape his hasty glance: some one else may like it, if he does not. He has no desire whatever to offer an opinion on its merits or demerits: his concern is simply to determine whether he wants to use it or not. If he doesn’t, you can’t force him to buy it: it is a free country for him too, thus far at least. Yet many try to encroach on this moderate constitutional liberty of his. He is naturally a weak-minded person, they think: it takes so little brains to run a magazine—we could do it so much better! Conscious of his deficiencies, he will be open to influence, and grateful for guidance, even from an interested party. What else is the meaning of notes like this?

“I send you an original sonnet. My sister, whose literary taste is excellent, considers the lines possessed of unusual merit. I trust you also may regard them in the same favorable light.”

That is, you guarantee your sister’s judgment, and she stands sponsor for your verses. Such is the domestic point of view: here is that of the office. If your sister were conducting a publication and you offered the sonnet to her, her opinion would be important: otherwise it is irrelevant.

“What is the matter with the second stanza of enclosed? About up to some of Poe’s weird conceits, don’t you think?”

Suppose Poe’s ghost were to claim it, and bring action. Resemblance to a great author’s work is dangerous.

“Whether or not this proves available, I am sure you will grant that the plot is an original one.”

Original plots are rarer birds than you perhaps think. If you made the hero boil and eat his grandmother, that would seem to be an original situation, yet it might prove to have been conceived and delineated in all its awful details long ago. The novelists of all civilized lands have been racking their brains for plots for three generations now, and their name is legion. You never can tell, unless you have read all their books, what the French and Russians and Italians may have been up to, not to speak of romancers nearer home. Besides, a plot may be original, and yet too gruesome, painful, or horrifying; it may also (and easily) be too improbable. Originality is not the only requisite of a good story, long or short.

“I presume you are right as to the inharmonious blending of Love and Dentistry; but we have had the plots of love-stories laid on everything, from  ‘the soft divans in the shadowy recesses of the conservatory’ to ‘the cruel crest of the waves’ during shipwreck, and I hoped I might introduce a unique field for the little god.”

You did. It was unique, as far as we know; but, as you admit, the elements were incongruous; and it is not only in the older theology that “the grace of congruity” is important.

“As my stories are not in simple language, true to Nature, but figurative word-paintings, I fear they will not please you. Therefore I send you only one short sketch, so as not to take much of your time for the examination, yet give you an idea of my style of work.”

In one respect this writer’s head is level. Some buildings can be judged as well by a single specimen brick as by a ton of them. Yet he makes a serious admission, or rather two serious admissions. All art is supposed to aim at Nature; if a story, or a discourse, or any literary production, is not “true to Nature,” what is it worth? As to “simple language,” Bret Harte did not disdain to employ it in his most effective poems, nor have poets greater than he.

“Simple language” is the best for ninety-nine occasions out of a hundred; for practical purposes it leaves “ fine writing” far behind. Unless the work of genius or of talent near allied to genius, readers care very little for “figurative word-paintings”; and even genius needs to attempt them sparingly. We do not know any reputable periodical which is above using and preferring “simple language, true to Nature.”

“As most girls do, I have taken a notion that I can write poetry. Whether I can or not will be determined by the fate of the two poems I send you. If accepted, I will know that I can: if rejected, which ye gods forbid, I will give up in despair.”

Don’t you know that no stranger who has brains and a conscience, and uses them, would accept such a responsibility as you try to thrust upon one who never heard of you before—that of determining whether you are to go on writing or not? An editor, thus challenged, has no choice but to send your pieces back. The chance of discouraging a real talent is vastly less than that of inducing a girl to waste in scribbling time which should be better employed. If your verses were accepted, you would “know” that you can write, would you? Not at all: the acceptance might be due to weak soft-heartedness or to blundering ill-judgment. Editors are not gods: it is their business to make their magazines as readable as they can, not to direct the lives and fix the fates of would-be contributors. Most of the “poetry” that gets into print might as well have remained unwritten, for all the fame or fortune it brings its writers, or all the good it does its readers. “If rejected, I wiIl give up in despair.” Don’t you know that a magazine cannot use more than one “poem” out of ten, or twenty, or fifty that are offered? that a piece may come back nineteen times and be accepted at the twentieth place? that writers do not succeed at once, but (as a rule only by keeping on in the practice that tends toward perfection ?

This correspondent represents a numerous class. She is one of the many girls (we trust and believe she exaggerates in saying “most girls”) who think they can write poetry—it would be more modest to call it verse. Now it cannot be that all these girls are real poets, or have it in them to become such. They will find more commonplace destinies as “salesladies” and typewriters and clerks and nurses, and most of them ultimately as wives and mothers; every-day vocations, but much more useful than spoiling good paper to produce bad verses. Among the thousands of them there may be one or two who have real literary talent: if so, it will prove itself in time. But if Jane or Susan or Luella or Willametta wishes to learn whether she is one of these gifted few, she might as well use the old method of opening the Bible at random and expecting an answer from the first verse her eye falls on, as “put it to the touch” on the acceptance or rejection of her first efforts by the first editor she sends them to.

“Why is it that authors are really unable to obtain compensation of any kind for MS., although it is good?”

Are they? You must mean beginners, and that they think “it is good.” Real authors, who do really good work, “obtain compensation,”—though it is not a lucrative trade, except for a few, whose names are well before the public mind and eye.

“Would you please tell me some magazines that do pay contributors for suitable articles? Do magazines in England and other countries pay for MSS.? Is it worth sending them anything, or would the postage make it too expensive? If I wrote you a short novelette, would you publish it for me? What are the terms for publishing novels? I am trying to earn my living by my pen, but find it hard work. Do you know of anything else a girl staying at home could do? Have you anything I could do for you?”

A large and healthy force of philanthropists, working ten hours a day and three hundred and thirteen days in the year, might be able to answer all questions like the above. But what good would it do, unless they were prepared also to administer food to body, mind, and soul, to furnish a market for all these impossible wares, to find work for so many craving pens and fingers—and not only work, but instruction how to do it? The instruction, alas, would in many cases have to be from the ground up, to begin almost with A B C, and to include all known facts and principles connected, however remotely, with the Conduct of Life as well as with the Art of Writing. In Mr. Howells’s Altruria, perhaps, these cases are attended to.

Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Volume 58, 1896

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  The author certainly does not censor his opinions! Alas, editors are still tormented by these sorts of questions and submissions. An authoress of Mrs Daffodil’s acquaintance says that she receives several score of calls a year from people asking some of the very same questions delineated above or for advice on how to get published.  Many of these callers refuse to say what their book is about for fear she will steal their ideas, not realising that she has entirely too many ideas of her own. A goodly proportion are, sadly, poets. While Mrs Daffodil understands the popular appeal of baring one’s soul in rhyming couplets, there is, the authoress assures her, very little money in poetry. One wishes that all of this literary energy could somehow be harnessed to run the cars or industrial boilers.

Mrs Daffodil notes in to-day’s Telegraph, an article stating that, while 60% of persons surveyed thought being an author was their “dream job,” just one in ten  authors makes a full-time living from their writing.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

 

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