A Brief Consideration
by Ellis Parker Butler
To the sensitive and well-attuned observer two great facts relating to the modern fictional literature written in the English languages must be apparent, and must cause him deep distress. One is the great falling off in the number of novels, and the other is the great slump in quality.
It is not my intention to draw conclusions from the merely amateurish remarks of the general reader of fiction, who may have bought a novel with a perfectly good three-colour portrait of a girl on the cover. His opinion is worthless. He may read novel after novel, remarking regularly, after each is finished: "Rotten, punk, all to the bad!" but his critical ability is negligible. He might say the same of Pilgrim's Progress or Paradise Lost. Probably he would.
Neither shall I exemplify my contention by drawing from the scathing words of the professional critics. We all know too well that the critics of today do nothing but scathe. Many a critic has taken a novel that was at least as good as anything done by Balzac, and scathed it all to pieces. We all know that the critic does nothing but condemn. And he gets free copies, too!
No, these are not signs of the times. The reader may hoot and the critic may scathe, and they leave us unconvinced, but when the publisher himself voices his discouragement, we may well listen. Particularly true is this when his depression appears in the public prints, and regarding fiction put forth by himself. The fact is this: the publisher is utterly disheartened. Time was when a publisher could present a book of fiction to his public with a few words of recommendation. He had a belief in the merits of his wares. But today he is so disgusted, so sick at heart over the sort of fiction he is obliged to put forth, that his optimism is dead. It is in the tone of his announcements that we read his hopeless depression and the small opinion he has of the novels he prints. Not once, so far in 1911, have I read an announcement in which a publisher ventures even the modest assertion that a novel of his printing is "the greatest work of fiction ever produced by the hand of man." When the publishers feel thus the condition of fiction must indeed be low.
In most instances the publishers actually disparage the novels they are offering. I suppose they are ashamed to say a good word for them. What can we think of a novel of which the publisher has no more to say than that it is "tremendously dramatic . . . presents a fascinating character . . . ?" Or of another in which "the characters are particularly strong and convincing . . . a big book in more than one sense of the word ... a fine, clean, spirited romance of sentiment and action?" If that is all the publisher has to say it is evident he does not think much of the novel.
A few sporadic instances such as these might indeed prove nothing. The publishers putting them forth might be suffering from dyspepsia or chronic melancholia, and the novels might really possess merits, but when this same deprecatory tone appears in all announcements of new fiction we can and must believe that fiction is in a bad state. Of the books of the Spring season the publishers have nothing better to say than such things as "weird and alluring . . . conceive that Du Maurier . . . Poe . . . Hugo . . . De Maupassant. . . ." or "the year's best novel. . . . One of the great novelists . . ." and "the reader remains enthralled . . ." and ". . . quiet strength is infused with sincerity. . . ." and of another ". . . sensuous charm of word and idea, the grace and flexibility of style . . . render even more beautiful a love story, the intrinsic charm of which makes an instantaneous appeal." The publishers hardly seem to care whether any one buys their books or not.
This reserve of expression is not due to modesty on the part of the publishers, either. Publishers are not modest. In the past they have, on occasion, been known to mention that such or such a book was good. The truth is that they have not the heart to speak words of praise for the spring crop of novels. If they had would they damn them with such faint praise as
. . . told with vigour and full of cleverness and freshness.
An engrossing mystery story.
The sprightliest romance of the season.
The "Prince of Story Tellers" in a new vein.
Displays . . . the lost art of Poe.
An engrossing romance.
The detective story of 1911.
. . . inimitable flashlights. . . .
One of the most extraordinary detective tales ever written.
. . . few stories so sweet, so tender, so humanly convincing. . . .
. . . masterly understanding, . . . brilliant perception, . . . intense power.
. . . a strong story.
One of the cleverest, most captivating, most complicated, most delightful of love stories.
. . . a virile story.
. . . sparkles with humour.
. . . transcends the limits of mere fiction.
. . . without parallel in contemporary fiction for sustained and quiet beauty.
. . . throws into the shadow all the novels of the last decade. . . .
. . . original, powerful, different. . . .
. . . stirring. . . .
. . . brilliant. . . .
. . . vivid and enthusiastic. . . .
. . . clever. . . .
. . . delightful. . . .
. . . Strongest. . . .
. . . fascinating. . . .
Would they? They would not! The publishers have evidently lost faith in the English-writing and translating-into-English authors. They see nothing hopeful in the outlook. They are distinctly pessimistic, as may be seen from the few excerpts quoted here.
The fault is with the authors. Our fiction writers are not satisfying the publishers. No wonder the publishers openly condemn the novelists in such cutting words as "Miss ------ has rare gifts for character drawing and her talents have been used to the full." It is cruel to condemn an author in this ruthless manner, but the taunt is deserved. Even those who have done well in times past seem to have lost their ability. As one publisher says, "Mr. ------'s first novel since '------ of ------,' and the greatest of his life work." This is an admission of lack of confidence that touches the hardest heart.
I see no hope for the future. That is the worst of it. The authors are authoring as hard as they can, but the publishers are steadily losing faith. As one publisher says, "First edition to be 175,000 copies," thus utterly condemning the book in question in advance, for if the publisher shows no faith in his books how can he expect the public to have faith in them?
But, if the outlook is black, now is the time to make an appeal to the publishers The time of panic is the time to talk prosperity, and the time when our publishers feel as their announcements indicate they feel is the time when they should try to arouse the drooping art of fiction-writing by throwing a word of praise into their advertisements now and then. I propose that every publisher of fiction hereafter in announcing a new book, drop some little word of praise into the advertisement. It need not be much -- just some mild little phrase such as "this novel, by far the greatest the world has yet seen, will go thundering down the ages. It will live forever," or "Cervantes, De Foe, Balzac, Dumas, Hugo, Thackeray, Dickens and Shakespeare must weep with jealousy to think they, alone or in company, could never have produced a novel so noble, so thrilling, so true, so world-without-end everlastingly jim dandy as this."
If you are a publisher, do this. If you are a friend of a publisher, beg him to do this. If you are a reader, write the publishers to do this. Tell the publishers. Telephone them. Urge them to look on the brighter side of things. Who knows? Perhaps in a year fiction may take an uplift. Perhaps in two years things will be brighter. At present only six books are able to find their way each month into the fold of the "six best sellers." If the publishers will only say a few good words for their publications, when advertising them, fiction may take such a brace that in a year or so there may be twenty, or thirty or even forty "six best sellers" every week.