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Amateur Authors

Literature knows no Trades Unions, but if things go on as they are at present, perhaps we shall hear of literary rattening and picketing. The Kolnische Zeitung, in Germany, has been protesting against the mob of noble ladies who write with ease, though their works, even to persons acquainted with the German tongue, are by no means easy reading. The Teutonic paper requests these ambitious dames to conduct themselves as amateurs, to write, if write they must, but to print only a few copies of their books, and give these few copies only to their friends. This is advice as morally excellent as it will be practically futile, nor does it apply only to ladies of rank, but to amateur novelists in general. The old quarrel between artists and amateurs is fiercely waged in dramatic society, perhaps because actors and actresses feel the stress of competing with cheap amateur labour. Now, though the professional novelist has only of late begun to think seriously of the subject, it is plain that he too is competing with labour unnaturally cheap, and is losing in the competition. To define an amateur is difficult, as all athletic clubs and rowing clubs are aware. But in this particular field of human industry, the amateur may be defined with ease. The amateur novelist is not merely the person who, having another profession, writes a romance by way of "by-work," as the Greeks called it. Lord Beaconsfield was no amateur in romance, and perhaps no novel was ever sold at so high a ransom as "Endymion." Yet Lord Beaconsfield only scribbled in his idle hours, and was not half so much an amateur novelist as Mr. Gladstone is an amateur student of Homer. No; the true amateur is he or she who publishes at his or her own expense. The labour of such persons is not only cheap; its rewards may be estimated by a frightful minus quantity--the publisher's bill. Every one must have observed that when his box of books comes from the circulating library, it by no means contains the books he has asked the librarian to send. The batch does not exclusively consist of the plums and prizes of the publishing season, of Sir Henry Gordon's book on his illustrious brother, of the most famous novel of the month, of Mr. Romilly's "New Guinea and the Western Pacific"--as diverting a book of travel as ever was written, of Mr. Stockton's "Mrs. Null," and generally of all that is freshest and most notable in biography, fiction, and history. A few of the peaches of the best quality there are, but the rest are fruit less valued, are, in fact, amateur novels. There are two sets of three gaudy novels by unheard-of ladies; and perhaps three shilling novels, with such titles as "Who Did It?" "Chopped in Cover," or "Under a Cloud," none of which names we trust are copyright. A similar phenomenon presents itself at the bookstalls, which are choked with cheap and unenticing brief tales of the deadly sins. And whose fault is it that we do not get the good books and are flooded with the bad books? Why, it is the fault of the ambitious amateur, of the ladies and gentlemen who publish at their own risk, and at the cost of the world of readers and professional writers.

This is, with a few remarkable limitations, a free country. No law exists which says to publishers, "Thou shalt not publish on commission." No law confines the vagaries of amateur romance. Hence the market is choked, and the circulating libraries are overwhelmed with rubbish, and good books, as the Americans of the West say, "get no show." The debauched novel reader, to whom every story is a story, and one no better nor worse than another, may not heed it, but the judicious grieve, and the artist in fiction returns a smaller income tax. Then the very revenue suffers with the general decline of letters. It may, of course, be urged that all artists are amateurs before they secure a paying public. The amateur novelist may be compared to the young dramatic author who gives his piece at a matinee, and who, once in a hundred times, finds a manager to approve it. May not publishing en amateur be the only way of reaching the public? To this question the answer is, No! The risk of publishing a novel by a new author is nothing like so great as the risk of producing a play with an unknown name to it. Publishers exist for the purpose of bringing out books that will pay, and they generally pounce on a good manuscript in fiction, whether the writer be known or unknown. It is much more easy to predict whether a novel will pay or not than to prophecy about a drama. Thus the most obscure author (in spite of the difficulties faced by "Jane Eyre" and "Vanity Fair") may rely on it, that if his MS. is not accepted, it is not worth accepting. He should not, if he has decently sound reasons for self-confidence, be disheartened by two or three refusals. One man's taste might be averse to "John Inglesant," another's might turn against Ouida, a third might fail to see the merit of "Vice Versa." But if half a dozen experts taste and reject a manuscript, it is almost certain to be hopeless. Then the author should take the advice once offered by Mr. Walter Besant. "Never publish at your own expense." If you do, you stamp yourself as an amateur; you add to the crowd of futilities that choke the market; and, if you have it in you to write a novel which shall be a good piece, you are handicapping yourself by placing a bad novel on your record. People sin out of thoughtlessness, as well as depravity, and we would not say that every amateur novelist is, ex officio, infamous, nefarious, and felonious. He or she may be only rather vain, conceited, and unreflecting.

Where, then, is the remedy if homilies fail to convert the sinner, as, indeed, it is the misfortune of homilies to fail? The remedy will be found in a Novelists' League, with tickets, and boycotting, and strikes, and rattening, and all the other devices for getting our own way in an oppressive world. There will be a secret society of professionals. Lady novelists (amateurs) will be rattened; their blotting-paper and French dictionaries will be stolen or destroyed; their publishers will be boycotted by all members of the League, who will decline to publish with any man known to deal with amateurs. Nay, so powerful is this dread and even criminal confederacy, that amateurs will not even be reviewed. Neither the slashing, nor the puffing, nor the faintly praising notice will be meted out to them. There will be a conspiracy of silence. The very circulating libraries will be threatened, and coffins (stolen from undertakers who dabble in romance) will be laid at Mr. Mudie's door, unless he casts off the amateur in fiction. The professionals will march through rapine to emancipation. They will strike off the last gyves that fetter the noble art of romance, and in five or six years we shall have only about a tenth of the present number of romances, but that tenth will pass through as many editions as "The Pilgrim's Progress," which, by the way, was probably, like Ronsard's poems, the work of an amateur. But these were other times, when an author did not expect to make money, and thought himself lucky if, after a slashing personal review by the Inquisition, his fragments were not burned at the stake in a bonfire of his volumes.

Andrew Lang