from Leslie's Monthly
The Romance Trust
by Ellis Parker Butler
I have been sadly distressed of late by the thought that the American novelists of today are no nearer the secret of the Great American Novel than were those of fifty years ago. I think the reason is that the Great American Novel is too great, too American and too novel for any one writer to compass. What is needed is a trust or combination.
I admit we produce tons of novels today, but with our climate and natural advantages we should supply novels for the whole world. At present our Richard Carvels, Virginians and Castle Craneycrows are forced to rub elbows in the book shops with Little White Birds, Temporal Powers, Eternal Cities and other products of the pauper labor of Europe. Our novelists must follow the methods of other manufacturers and incorporate the American Romance Co., under the laws of the State of New Jersey. The day of individual effort is passing. We must combine or lose the fight. The individual novelist is handicapped. Why should each writer be forced to become a jack-of-all-trades, and manufacture all varieties of passages? Think of the loss of skill when a man is obliged to patch up several pages of scenery, and then drop that to make weather for a day or two, and then turn his hand to love scenes, and the next day do a job of blood-shedding and sudden death! He can never become expert in any one of the tasks. Specialization and combination would work wonders. When the American Romance Company is organized each author will devote his talents to that part of novel-mongery for which he is best fitted.
One group of writers will furnish the scenery. James Lane Allen would make a useful head for this department, for he can make a picturesque scene out of any scraps of real estate that are lying around loose. We would secure much better scenery in this way, and books that now have no scenery would be able to have some. A few skilful craftsmen like James Lane Allen would make a Cabbage Patch blossom like a rosebed, and any spare patches of landscape could be interpolated between John Kendrick Bangs' conversational humor. It is always pleasant to run across a little well-kept real estate in a story. I think it adds to the tone of the book, and it is a great boon to the Skippers. It rests the brain to be able to skip lightly over a few solid pages of scenery; and, again, scenery makes the best sort of high grade padding for stories that would otherwise be too short for book form.
One of the most useful departments of the trust, however, would be the Weather Section. It is an undeniable fact that most of the weather in modern novels is vile. I open "Janice Meredith" and the first thing that catches the eye is "'Curse thy climate,' ejaculated the newcomer," and a few pages farther on, "'Damn this weather,' swore Brereton." It is the same in all the romances. It rains in and out of season, and the hero is always wading in puddles, being soaked to the skin, and half drowned. A few more years of this and the American Hero will be extinct -- dead of pneumonia -- or will go sniffling through the pages with a constant cold in his head.
I think a practical weatherman should be chosen as head of the weather department. The novelist is too reckless with his weather.
He spills rain continually, and is inaccurate regarding the temperature. How much better than the present custom of running in a little weather between talks it would be to have a concise statement at the head of each chapter, say "Weather for this chapter: Cloudy and unsettled; winds variable, mostly west; temperature 40 at seven o'clock and stationary. Next chapter, generally fair; light to fresh southerly winds shifting to brisk northwest in chapter XLI." This could be made even more realistic by having the predictions for the next chapter go amiss occasionally, as where it says "next chapter, generally fair" we would find that in reality the weather in the next chapter would be "cloudy with light showers." But the greatest gain would come from the exclusion of all very bad weather, and the consequent lessening of profanity, which could be accumulated for the use of the hero and the villain when they come face to face.
The Heart-Interest Section would be one of the largest and most active in the trust, and would embrace the Hero and Heroine subdivisions, with smaller crops of writers in charge of Minor Love Matters. It would be the duty of the Hero and Heroine subdivisions to give the hero and heroine a little real character, so that they might be truly lovable, and not love one another merely because it is part of the plot that they shall. We are all hero worshippers, but it stretches our faith to worship some of the heroes in recent novels, and as for the heroines! I have seen wax ladies in shop windows that had more character than the average heroine. I wonder why the modern romance maker doesn't go out and look upon a real woman sometimes instead of doing the Christy girl and the Gibson girl everlastingly.
But the Heart Interest Section would have other work besides this. By a little study all lovers' quarrels and unpleasant scenes could be eliminated, the number of kisses largely increased, and broken betrothals reduced to a minimum, with a larger percentage of happy marriages.
The Great Men Section would be in charge of an historian, and would keep a constant supply of great men on its shelves, ready to be dragged into the romances whenever necessary or unnecessary. The Blood and Thunder Branch would work in connection with the Sudden Death Corps, and would arrange all duels, battles on land and sea, catastrophes, murders and surgical operations. The Sudden Death Corps might in time raise the average number killed by the hero to 64. It is now only about 18.3. It is only through expert work by this Corps that we can ever hope to compete successfully with Anthony Hope, who holds the championship belt for killers at present.
As the trust begins to work smoothly other departments could be added, such as the Dialect Shop, the Psychological Moment Bureau, the Metaphysical Band, and the Realism Factory, each of which would prove of vast value.
Another great improvement could be made by securing expert assistants in each department. Thus the Food Department would be in charge of Oscar of the Waldorf, and instead of such bare statements as "the board was spread with a sumptuous repast," we would have delightful menus, with the full French nomenclature, and each romance would have an appendix in which the recipes for all the dishes would be given. Thus the romance would also serve as a cookbook and many temporarily popular novels would be saved and treasured for many years.
The same idea could be utilized in the Modes Department, in charge of Madame Marie, or Cecile, or some other great dressmaker. Instead of "She seemed a vision in dreamy white lace," we would have "Elsie appeared in a gown of white crepe de chine, made with a full skirt, with gores, side and back, trimmed with Peau Val. a la du Barry, over a peau de soie under lining. The waist was cut diagonally against the bias, bolero style with leg of mutton sleeves, terminating in revers," and tissue patterns of all the costumes described could be given with each book.
I am not sure that I should advise giving coupons with each novel. I fear it would savor of commercialism, of which modern romance writing is, of course, quite free, but it might be tried as an experiment; -- one coupon with each novel manufactured by the trust, and for the return of ten coupons a chenille table cover could be given, and so on up to ten thousand coupons, for which the holder would receive a grand piano.
Another excellent idea would be to run advertisements at the back and front of the romances. This would assure the buyer at least a portion of interesting, high-class reading, and would make respectable sized books of the shorter romances. As an additional inducement to the advertisers paragraphs relating to their wares could be interpolated, such as "When Carvel approached the mighty Washington he noticed that air of perfect good taste that always characterized the Father of his Country, even during the most tiresome campaigns. His face was beautifully shaven (the general always used Morgan's Shaving Soap, ten cents the cake at all druggists) and his hair showed the evidently frequent application of Atman's Hair Vigorator, which is still in the market and used by all patriotic Americans."