Jerome K. Jerome ~ Do Writers Write Too Much?

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On a newspaper placard, the other day, I saw announced a new novel by a celebrated author.  I bought a copy of the paper, and turned eagerly to the last page.  I was disappointed to find that I had missed the first six chapters.  The story had commenced the previous Saturday; this was Friday.  I say I was disappointed and so I was, at first.  But my disappointment did not last long.  The bright and intelligent sub-editor, according to the custom now in vogue, had provided me with a short synopsis of those first six chapters, so that without the trouble of reading them I knew what they were all about.

“The first instalment,” I learned, “introduces the reader to a brilliant and distinguished company, assembled in the drawing-room of Lady Mary’s maisonette in Park Street.  Much smart talk is indulged in.”

I know that “smart talk” so well.  Had I not been lucky enough to miss that first chapter I should have had to listen to it once again.  Possibly, here and there, it might have been new to me, but it would have read, I know, so very like the old.  A dear, sweet white-haired lady of my acquaintance is never surprised at anything that happens.

“Something very much of the same kind occurred,” she will remember, “one winter when we were staying in Brighton.  Only on that occasion the man’s name, I think, was Robinson.”

We do not live new stories—nor write them either.  The man’s name in the old story was Robinson, we alter it to Jones.  It happened, in the old forgotten tale, at Brighton, in the winter time; we change it to Eastbourne, in the spring.  It is new and original—to those who have not heard “something very like it” once before.

“Much smart talk is indulged in,” so the sub-editor has explained.  There is absolutely no need to ask for more than that.  There is a Duchess who says improper things.  Once she used to shock me.  But I know her now.  She is really a nice woman; she doesn’t mean them.  And when the heroine is in trouble, towards the middle of the book, she is just as amusing on the side of virtue.  Then there is a younger lady whose speciality is proverbs.  Apparently whenever she hears a proverb she writes it down and studies it with the idea of seeing into how many different forms it can be twisted.  It looks clever; as a matter of fact, it is extremely easy.

Be virtuous and you will be happy.

She jots down all the possible variations: Be virtuous and you will be unhappy.

“Too simple that one,” she tells herself.  Be virtuous and your friends will be happy if you are not.

“Better, but not wicked enough.  Let us think again.  Be happy and people will jump to the conclusion that you are virtuous.

“That’s good, I’ll try that one at to-morrow’s party.”

She is a painstaking lady.  One feels that, better advised, she might have been of use in the world.

There is likewise a disgraceful old Peer who tells naughty stories, but who is good at heart; and one person so very rude that the wonder is who invited him.

Occasionally a slangy girl is included, and a clergyman, who takes the heroine aside and talks sense to her, flavoured with epigram.  All these people chatter a mixture of Lord Chesterfield and Oliver Wendell Holmes, of Heine, Voltaire, Madame de Stael, and the late lamented H. J. Byron.  “How they do it beats me,” as I once overheard at a music hall a stout lady confess to her friend while witnessing the performance of a clever troup, styling themselves “The Boneless Wonders of the Universe.”

The synopsis added that: “Ursula Bart, a charming and unsophisticated young American girl possessed of an elusive expression makes her first acquaintance with London society.”

Here you have a week’s unnecessary work on the part of the author boiled down to its essentials.  She was young.  One hardly expects an elderly heroine.  The “young” might have been dispensed with, especially seeing it is told us that she was a girl.  But maybe this is carping.  There are young girls and old girls.  Perhaps it is as well to have it in black and white; she was young.  She was an American young girl.  There is but one American young girl in English fiction.  We know by heart the unconventional things that she will do, the startlingly original things that she will say, the fresh illuminating thoughts that will come to her as, clad in a loose robe of some soft clinging stuff, she sits before the fire, in the solitude of her own room.

To complete her she had an “elusive expression.”  The days when we used to catalogue the heroine’s “points” are past.  Formerly it was possible.  A man wrote perhaps some half-a-dozen novels during the whole course of his career.  He could have a dark girl for the first, a light girl for the second, sketch a merry little wench for the third, and draw you something stately for the fourth.  For the remaining two he could go abroad.  Nowadays, when a man turns out a novel and six short stories once a year, description has to be dispensed with.  It is not the writer’s fault.  There is not sufficient variety in the sex.  We used to introduce her thus:

“Imagine to yourself, dear reader, an exquisite and gracious creature of five feet three.  Her golden hair of that peculiar shade”—here would follow directions enabling the reader to work it out for himself.  He was to pour some particular wine into some particular sort of glass, and wave it about before some particular sort of a light.  Or he was to get up at five o’clock on a March morning and go into a wood.  In this way he could satisfy himself as to the particular shade of gold the heroine’s hair might happen to be.  If he were a careless or lazy reader he could save himself time and trouble by taking the author’s word for it.  Many of them did.

“Her eyes!”  They were invariably deep and liquid.  They had to be pretty deep to hold all the odds and ends that were hidden in them; sunlight and shadow, mischief, unsuspected possibilities, assorted emotions, strange wild yearnings.  Anything we didn’t know where else to put we said was hidden in her eyes.

“Her nose!”  You could have made it for yourself out of a pen’orth of putty after reading our description of it.

“Her forehead!”  It was always “low and broad.”  I don’t know why it was always low.  Maybe because the intellectual heroine was not then popular.  For the matter of that I doubt if she be really popular now.  The brainless doll, one fears, will continue for many years to come to be man’s ideal woman—and woman’s ideal of herself for precisely the same period, one may be sure.

“Her chin!”  A less degree of variety was permissible in her chin.  It had to be at an angle suggestive of piquancy, and it had to contain at least the suspicion of a dimple.

To properly understand her complexion you were expected to provide yourself with a collection of assorted fruits and flowers.  There are seasons in the year when it must have been difficult for the conscientious reader to have made sure of her complexion.  Possibly it was for this purpose that wax flowers and fruit, carefully kept from the dust under glass cases, were common objects in former times upon the tables of the cultured.

Nowadays we content ourselves—and our readers also, I am inclined to think—with dashing her off in a few bold strokes.  We say that whenever she entered a room there came to one dreams of an old world garden, the sound of far-off bells.  Or that her presence brought with it the scent of hollyhocks and thyme.  As a matter of fact I don’t think hollyhocks do smell.  It is a small point; about such we do not trouble ourselves.  In the case of the homely type of girl I don’t see why we should not borrow Mr. Pickwick’s expression, and define her by saying that in some subtle way she always contrived to suggest an odour of chops and tomato sauce.

If we desire to be exact we mention, as this particular author seems to have done, that she had an “elusive expression,” or a penetrating fragrance.  Or we say that she moved, the centre of an indefinable nuance.

But it is not policy to bind oneself too closely to detail.  A wise friend of mine, who knows his business, describes his hero invariably in the vaguest terms.  He will not even tell you whether the man is tall or short, clean shaven or bearded.

“Make the fellow nice,” is his advice.  “Let every woman reader picture him to herself as her particular man.  Then everything he says and does becomes of importance to her.  She is careful not to miss a word.”

For the same reason he sees to it that his heroine has a bit of every girl in her.  Generally speaking, she is a cross between Romola and Dora Copperfield.  His novels command enormous sales.  The women say he draws a man to the life, but does not seem to know much about women.  The men like his women, but think his men stupid.

Of another famous author no woman of my acquaintance is able to speak too highly.  They tell me his knowledge of their sex is simply marvellous, his insight, his understanding of them almost uncanny.  Thinking it might prove useful, I made an exhaustive study of his books.  I noticed that his women were without exception brilliant charming creatures possessed of the wit of a Lady Wortlay Montagu, combined with the wisdom of a George Eliot.  They were not all of them good women, but all of them were clever and all of them were fascinating.  I came to the conclusion that his lady critics were correct: he did understand women.  But to return to our synopsis.

The second chapter, it appeared, transported us to Yorkshire where: “Basil Longleat, a typical young Englishman, lately home from college, resides with his widowed mother and two sisters.  They are a delightful family.”

What a world of trouble to both writer and to reader is here saved.  “A typical young Englishman!”  The author probably wrote five pages, elaborating.  The five words of the sub-editor present him to me more vividly.  I see him positively glistening from the effects of soap and water.  I see his clear blue eye; his fair crisp locks, the natural curliness of which annoys him personally, though alluring to everybody else; his frank winning smile.  He is “lately home from college.”  That tells me that he is a first-class cricketer; a first-class oar; that as a half-back he is incomparable; that he swims like Captain Webb; is in the first rank of tennis players; that his half-volley at ping-pong has never been stopped.  It doesn’t tell me much about his brain power.  The description of him as a “typical young Englishman” suggests more information on this particular point.  One assumes that the American girl with the elusive expression is going to have sufficient for both.

“They are a delightful family.”  The sub-editor does not say so, but I imagine the two sisters are likewise typical young Englishwomen.  They ride and shoot and cook and make their own dresses, have common sense and love a joke.

The third chapter is “taken up with the humours of a local cricket match.”

Thank you, Mr. Sub-editor.  I feel I owe you gratitude.

In the fourth, Ursula Bart (I was beginning to get anxious about her) turns up again.  She is staying at the useful Lady Mary’s place in Yorkshire.  She meets Basil by accident one morning while riding alone.  That is the advantage of having an American girl for your heroine.  Like the British army: it goes anywhere and does anything.

In chapter five Basil and Ursula meet again; this time at a picnic.  The sub-editor does not wish to repeat himself, otherwise he possibly would have summed up chapter five by saying it was “taken up with the humours of the usual picnic.”

In chapter six something happens:

“Basil, returning home in the twilight, comes across Ursula Bart, in a lonely point of the moor, talking earnestly to a rough-looking stranger.  His approach over the soft turf being unnoticed, he cannot help overhearing Ursula’s parting words to the forbidding-looking stranger: ‘I must see you again!  To-morrow night at half-past nine!  In the gateway of the ruined abbey!’  Who is he?  And why must Ursula see him again at such an hour, in such a spot?”

So here, at cost of reading twenty lines, I am landed, so to speak, at the beginning of the seventh chapter.  Why don’t I set to work to read it?  The sub-editor has spoiled me.

“You read it,” I want to say to him.  “Tell me to-morrow morning what it is all about.  Who was this bounder?  Why should Ursula want to see him again?  Why choose a draughty place?  Why half-past nine o’clock at night, which must have been an awkward time for both of them—likely to lead to talk?  Why should I wade though this seventh chapter of three columns and a half?  It’s your work.  What are you paid for?”

My fear is lest this sort of thing shall lead to a demand on the part of the public for condensed novels.  What busy man is going to spend a week of evenings reading a book when a nice kind sub-editor is prepared in five minutes to tell him what it is all about!

Then there will come a day—I feel it—when the business-like Editor will say to himself: “What in thunder is the sense of my paying one man to write a story of sixty thousand words and another man to read it and tell it again in sixteen hundred!”

We shall be expected to write our novels in chapters not exceeding twenty words.  Our short stories will be reduced to the formula: “Little boy.  Pair of skates.  Broken ice, Heaven’s gates.”  Formerly an author, commissioned to supply a child’s tragedy of this genre for a Christmas number, would have spun it out into five thousand words.  Personally, I should have commenced the previous spring—given the reader the summer and autumn to get accustomed to the boy.  He would have been a good boy; the sort of boy that makes a bee-line for the thinnest ice.  He would have lived in a cottage.  I could have spread that cottage over two pages; the things that grew in the garden, the view from the front door.  You would have known that boy before I had done with him—felt you had known him all your life.  His quaint sayings, his childish thoughts, his great longings would have been impressed upon you.  The father might have had a dash of humour in him, the mother’s early girlhood would have lent itself to pretty writing.  For the ice we would have had a mysterious lake in the wood, said to be haunted.  The boy would have loved o’ twilights to stand upon its margin.  He would have heard strange voices calling to him.  You would have felt the thing was coming.

So much might have been done.  When I think of that plot wasted in nine words it makes me positively angry.

And what is to become of us writers if this is to be the new fashion in literature?  We are paid by the length of our manuscript at rates from half-a-crown a thousand words, and upwards.  In the case of fellows like Doyle and Kipling I am told it runs into pounds.  How are we to live on novels the serial rights of which to most of us will work out at four and nine-pence.

It can’t be done.  It is no good telling me you can see no reason why we should live.  That is no answer.  I’m talking plain business.

And what about book-rights?  Who is going to buy novels of three pages?  They will have to be printed as leaflets and sold at a penny a dozen.  Marie Corelli and Hall Caine—if all I hear about them is true—will possibly make their ten or twelve shillings a week.  But what about the rest of us?  This thing is worrying me.

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