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Advice to Authors, circa 1907

Arthur C. Benson, Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge

I had imagined that being a successful author was easier a century ago. More people read books, there were fewer competing entertainments. A work was printed in a finite edition, and except for the most popular offerings, eventually went out of print, it did not linger in cyber space for all eternity. You browsed book stores, and joined lending libraries. There were mentions in the press, and word of mouth. It was a small world, compared to today.

Publishers promoted their books. Almost every piece I have from that period has one, sometimes several pages, of enthusiastic blurbs for works by the same author, or works in a similar vein.

If you have a use for laugh-your-ass-off reviews, find them in front and back matter for ancient publications on guttenberg.org. FOR INSTANCE: Percival Pollard (an American literary critic, novelist and short story writer) in Town Topics (a quarterly New York-based magazine of fiction, humor, and light verse, published in the late 19th and early 20th century) wrote (of a schlock romance by a now-overlooked contemporary of the wildly successful Elinor Glyn): “Be as sad and as sane as you like, for all the other days of your life, but steal one mad day, I adjure you, to sit and read this stunning . . . ” 

Arthur C. Benson, in ‘From a College Window’, has a few words for hopeful writers. A modest level of success was a high hurdle even way back then. He says:

“I have been sometimes consulted by young aspirants in literature as to the best mode of embarking on the profession of letters; and if my inquirer has confessed that he will be obliged to earn his living, I have always replied, dully but faithfully, that the best way to realize his ambition is to enter some other profession without delay.

“Writing is indeed the most delightful thing in the world, if one has not to depend upon it for a livelihood. One must not hope for much monetary reward. A novelist or journalist of the first rank may earn a handsome income; but to achieve conspicuous mundane success in literature, a certain degree of good fortune is almost more important than genius, or even than talent. It is necessary to have a vogue, to create or satisfy a special demand, to hit the taste of the age.

“The literary writer pure and simple, can hardly hope to earn a living wage, unless he is content to do, and indeed fortunate enough to obtain, a good deal of hack work as well. He must be ready to write reviews and introductions; to pour out occasional articles, to compile, to edit, to select. He will have little of the tranquility, the serenity, the leisure, upon the enjoyment of which the quality of the best work depends. Unless a man has private resources, he can hardly afford to turn his attention to belles lettres.”

Benson had a considerable reputation in scholarly circles. His books of essays sold like hotcakes, apparently. All the works I see touted in back matter are advertised as being in the third to tenth editions. He wrote biographies. He wrote poetry. He wrote lyrics.

And (so it appears from some of his titles) he wrote fiction. I’d like to see what his fiction consisted of. It will certainly include a moral. That a sinner must repent and/or be severely punished was a given for the era. And Benson was the pious son of an Archbishop of Canterbury. Morality was the core of his being.

_________

No, it’s never been easy, on any level.

A compelling story is the tip of the iceberg. We must be as relentless in promoting our work as we were in writing it.

I have created a series of posters. If summer art fairs make a come-back, I have a fine backdrop for a retail effort. (I am going to print-publish. The story pairs with a paper doll, to be cut out and played with.)

To release a work in installments is frequently cited as a useful strategy. The more your name is out and about, the better your chance of being noticed. I am considering that also.

The big problem would be the extra ISBN numbers I’d need, and the publishing fees for three-four-five pieces. The big plus would be–I’d have room for more illustration, by which I mean, of course, additional outfits. I would dearly love to get the Bird of Paradise costume into my (as currently laid out) already packed sixty pages.

Sixty pages is a monster of a paper doll book, which is what Maisie pretends to be. I expect the paper doll to be the major factor, at least at first, in grabbing attention and generating sales.

You will find the beginning of a Maisie website here

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14 thoughts on “Advice to Authors, circa 1907

    • mimispeike says:

      This is one of the posters I’m going to send you. I’m sending the two best ones.

      Art #5, I need to re-do the hands. This was one of the earliest images I did. I’ve gotten better at hands.

      Liked by 3 people

  1. victoracquista says:

    Thanks, Mimi for your informative post and for your tremendous creativity!
    “Writing is indeed the most delightful thing in the world, if one has not to depend upon it for a livelihood. One must not hope for much monetary reward.” I can relate to these words for sure. LOL! Should I feel some sense of solace?

    Liked by 6 people

  2. mimispeike says:

    And now, a plug for my cousin by marriage, that I didn’t know I had until Mary Beth sent me a birthday greeting via her husband’s Facebook account about eight years ago. I invited him to visit here, and he replied that he no longer has any desire to talk about the process of writing. (The implication being, he’s so far beyond us in his authorship journey.)

    I read his work. He writes beautifully, with wit and with imagination. His short stories have been widely published, and he has a number of novels printed by small presses.

    Here are a few of his reviews. (I haven’t seen a disparaging comment yet.)

    George Salis, Author, Sea Above, Sun Below and Editor of The Collidescope:

    “…superbly accomplished novel (Le Overgivers au Club de la Résurrection) …will surely be one of the best novels you read this year.” “…superbly accomplished novel by an extraordinary talent.”

    ​Tom Ball, Senior Editor, Fleas on the Dog.

    “Meirose is a trickster stylist and while you might call him ‘Joycean’ his lyric signature is lighter and a little more playful than the author of ‘Ulysses’. His extraordinary word play is like listening to a dialect you don’t quite understand but from which you can nevertheless glean meaning.”

    ​Norman Conquest, Editor, Black Scat Books:

    “A magician’s hand is quicker than the eye, and the same is true of Meirose’s fiction. It’s experimental magic and I haven’t a clue how he does it.”

    ​Rosemarie Tantra Bensko, author of The Agents of the Nevermind psychological suspense series, and gold medal winning novelist:

    “Meirose’s prose pulses with life, infusing you with intensity of each moment arising surprised. ”

    ​​Richard S. Bailey, author of Off on a Tangent and Tiresias Lies: The Insidious Plot of the Men with One Left Shoe :

    “Jim Meirose is a writer of distinctive voice and vision”

    ​ ​​​Jane Rosenberg LaForge, author of An Unsuitable Princess and The Hawkman: A Fairy Tale of the Great War:

    ​”To read only one of Jim Meirose’s novels is to miss out on the scope and depth of his surreal vision”​

    Paul John Adams, Editor, Optional Books: “This a profoundly original novel. It is unsettling, it is anxiety ridden, and it is also quite humorous.”

    Warwick Newnham, Contributing Editor, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters: “Like Ballard and Burroughs, Meirose works in the realm of literature as pure consciousness: a tour de force of post-modernist philosophy as writing.”

    Whoa! Yet Meirose has not (to my knowledge) had a breakthrough top seller.

    I wish him the best, whether he sees fit to speak to me or not. When he had a personal page up, I noted that one of his ‘friends’ was Gary ‘Doonesbury’ Trudeau. When you run in that circle, why waste your time talking to (relative or not) this Mimi Speike?

    I noticed recently that he no longe appears in my ‘friends’ listing.I thought I’d been dumped.

    No. Not dumped, at least. I see he has deleted his personal page, has only an author page, with no friends to show.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Smart man. He concentrates on the writing, not the social networking.

    The thing is (speaking for myself)—I NEED (italics doesn’t work) to perform in public somewhere! Jim’s not that needy. Plus, given his level of talent and authorial acclaim, he can well delay gratification (scritch-scratching for audience feedback/reaction) until the latest batch of adulatory encomiums come rolling in from critics appraising the literary worth of his latest project. (see: those reviews) Hence: silence. Or rather, carefully curated and crafted public announcements judiciously placed in critical forums to further—not harm—his career. (I suspect.)

    Again: smart! Why risk jabbing a pole into this particular cage of pacing, mange-ridden tigers? He doesn’t know us. Remember: most (commercially unsuccessful) writers are as hair-triggered, delusional and technically inept as methamphetamined bikers attempting to seduce the hot number standing at the bar with “dere smoodness; watch me work”.

    Liked by 4 people

    • mimispeike says:

      I last saw Mary Beth at my aunt’s place in upstate NY about twenty years ago. I don’t recall if she mentioned her husband wrote or not. He had been a manager at AT&T. He only started writing full time when he retired.

      Why haven’t we heard of Jim? Seems like he should have made the NYT Book Review by now, and been talked about online.

      Anyone here know the name?

      Liked by 3 people

  4. mimispeike says:

    Here’s something to buck us up:

    On Jan. 28, 1813, Pride and Prejudice was published for the first time. It was the first novel written by Jane Austen, although it wasn’t the first book she published. She’d released Sense and Sensibility two years prior.

    Austen started writing what became Pride and Prejudice in Oct. 1796. It took her ten months to write it, and then her father, Rev. George Austen, tried to find a publisher for the work. He sent the manuscript to the publishing house, Cadell & Davies, to see if they’d release the book. The publisher instead rejected the reverend’s inquiry by marking it “return to sender.” That means no one at Cadell & Davies bothered opening the minister’s letter.

    Jane kept writing, though, and produced Sense and Sensibility. The publisher Thomas Egerton released that book in 1811, the first edition of which sold out within two years. Encouraged by that success, Egerton agreed to publish Jane’s first novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ah, yes! Publisher rejections of writers later acclaimed for their talent. Here’s one of my favorites:
    ……………………..
    https://nypost.com/2018/03/03/the-author-of-a-wrinkle-in-time-almost-never-got-published/

    By 1960, she had a first draft of what she had titled “Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which” (later “A Wrinkle in Time”) to send to her agent.

    The first response by editor Evelyn Shrifte at Vanguard Press, which had published one of her previous books, “Meet the Austins,” did not bode well.

    “Evelyn turned down Mrs Whatsit while I was there, turned it down with one hand while saying that she loved it, but I didn’t quite dare do it, as it isn’t really classifiable,” L’Engle wrote. “I know Mrs Whatsit is a good book, and if I’ve ever written a book that says what I feel about God and the universe, this is it. This is the psalm of praise to life, my stand for life against death.”

    More rejections followed.

    One publisher insisted that she cut the manuscript by half to which she wrote in her journal: “I’m willing to rewrite, to rewrite extensively, to cut as much as necessary; but I am not willing to mutilate, to destroy the essence of the book.”

    When editors asked if the book was intended for children or adults — possibly to undermine the book, L’Engle would reply, according to her granddaughters, with, “It’s for people, don’t people read books?”

    Still, the rejections took a toll on the writer. “Each rejection, no matter how philosophically expected, is a wound,” she wrote.

    A year and a rumored 26 rejections later . . .

    Liked by 3 people

  6. From The Atlantic Monthly.
    Dear Mr. Vonnegut:
    We have been carrying out our usual summer house-cleaning of the manuscripts on our anxious bench and in the file, and among them I find the three papers which you have shown me as samples of your work. I am sincerely sorry that no one of them seems to us well adapted to for our purpose. Both have drawn commendation although neither one is quite compelling enough for final acceptance.

    Not quite compelling enough… Ah, we’ve all heard that one! And if by any chance they do accept it, the ‘veneer of legitimacy’ (Atthys’s words) maybe nice but it won’t, I’m afraid, translate into dosh.
    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/jun/28/why-do-writers-need-agents-to-keep-track-of-the-rejections

    Mimi, you’re brave enough and lucid enough to forge your own path, and I sincerely hope you’ll be rewarded with great satisfaction, from whatever source it may come.

    Liked by 3 people

    • mimispeike says:

      Thank you Curtis. Brave? It’s not that.

      I’ve been admonished all my life (sometimes outright, mostly by implication), why can’t I be normal? Not so stand-offish. Not so volatile. Why don’t I try harder to fit it?

      I simply can’t do it. I don’t have it in me. I can’t bring myself to be social, or even pleasant, when I’m obsessed with other things, and I’m always obsessed about something. So I can’t even say I’m lucid. Frankly, I’m a mess.

      My husband loves me as I am, thank god for that.

      I’ve thought for years that I am a bit bi-polar, but I never wanted to find out.

      Liked by 4 people

  7. “The veneer of legitimacy”: a pretty, pithy phrase.

    I recall Atthys recounting one editor’s response to a novel he’d written that basically boiled down to: “This is great! Love it! Now here’s how I suggest we change the entire plot, theme, pacing and tone of the book.”

    I believe it was experiences like that that drove Atthys from the field. (Though the cognoscenti eagerly await his return–someday.)

    Liked by 3 people

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