ON UNBENDING OVER A NOVEL By S. Squire Sprigge

Not by our idol Robert Lynd but very interesting text. Feel free to share everywhere.

 

The Living Age … Volume 284 (1915) 

ON UNBENDING OVER A NOVEL

By S. Squire Sprigge

How many serious persons read novels as a relaxation—not necessarily good novels, and not necessarily bad novels, but novels in the lump? I have an idea that in this direction a capacity for simple amusement has been given to serious men which has been denied to serious women, although this is a guess, and does not at first sight seem to coincide with accepted opinion. For women are commonly said to be the main support of the novelist, and from Lydia Languish onwards the women against whom the humorous writer or depreciatory observer wants to score a point are generally depicted as hardened novel readers. The novel reading of women which is thus condemned, however, is not the novel reading of serious persons as a relaxation. This is no unbending over make-believe adventures of intelligences which in the business routine of life must be kept tightly strung up. I am not questioning what the number of uncritical readers may be, who are uncritical because they can be nothing else. This number is of great importance to all publishers and to many authors, but my curiosity refers to serious persons only. By serious persons grumpy or priggish ones are not implied, but rather people who are engaged daily and regularly in hard and responsible work—work which keeps their attention fixed for long spells of time, and often anxiously; people for whom life is real, and who know the importance of being earnest. I wonder how far it is common for these people to read novels of all sorts; I doubt if they are satisfied with the supply which they receive; and if the number of these readers is greater than is usually supposed, is it not an indication of remissness that authors and publishers do not take the matter with some eagerness into their consideration?

The hint that there may be a difference in the matter of novel reading between a man and a woman has not been made with any desire to provoke a discussion on sex proclivities; but the sex aspect may have to be considered if we find that the habits of those members of each sex who have the closest approximation to each other in many respects are unlike in their attitude towards fiction. There is among us now a rapidly increasing number of women who fall under the category of serious workers, and in any guess at the extent to which fiction of all sorts is read as a relaxation the number of thoughtful women must be reckoned with who exhibit this sensible habit—for I consider the habit a prudent and pleasant one. I doubt if there are many among them who read novels, uncritically, almost heedlessly, just for the story, for the brief illusion, for the shallow pleasure. Serious women are more closely caught in the toils of their work than serious men. Undoubtedly a very large number of women read novels voraciously, and it would seem, judging from what is provided for their needs in libraries, that they are not in the least particular what they read; but for the most part female clients of the circulating libraries are reading to fill in time. They are not reading to get relaxation. It is not a break in their occupation which leads them to novel reading; novel reading is their occupation. Women, perhaps, are divided more straitly than men into those who think and those who do not think, and it is these latter who form the audience to which a good deal of the unreadable fiction, nowadays lumbering the shelves of bookshops and libraries, must be addressed. The less intelligent section of men do not read novels at all. The less intelligent section of women are industrious novel readers, and it is their taste that the author and publisher who are working for a popular circulation desire to please; they are the persons responsible for the kind of novel that is so dreadfully common, among us—the imitation clever novel, and the machine-made sensational novel.

These novels are, many of them, labelled the “novel of the year,” and in some fifty-two annual instances are really the novel of the week. Not necessarily bad books, they represent a good deal of industry on the part of their authors, and sometimes are really skilful examples of the particular pattern which they follow. Not infrequently their creators have one or two fairly good books to their credit, on the strength of which they choose to write ten inferior ones; and for one buyer who can see the alteration in standard a hundred will be blind to it. In the vast crowd of such productions a few get lost which were worth a better fate. The reviewers may or may not detect them, but even if they do the public pays little heed to their words, and no amount of favorable notices persuades the circulating libraries to order a book, perhaps by an unknown writer, differing in essentials from the kind which is understood to please. An attempt to obtain such a book will be met with the answer that all the copies are out—the truth, and not in the least surprising, for only a very few copies have been ordered; the applications are not in many cases renewed, and the book falls. The fact that all unsuccessful writers would be likely to bring this accusation against the libraries has to be borne in mind, and many, chagrined that their books have not been subscribed for in greater numbers, have allocated the blame wrongly; but there is little evidence of discrimination displayed in the conduct of our circulating libraries. Credited as they are with an ambition to undertake the task of a moral censorship, they attempt no exercise or literary supervision over what they supply, though with the introduction: here of some discretion a great many of their difficulties would disappear, and many of us would repair more blithely to their counters.

I do not want to put the two things, that many women read too many novels and that too many inferior novels are written, into undue proximity, or to suggest that there is a class among women for whom something is provided that is not good enough for men. There are many men for whom quite bad novels would be quite good enough, but they do not read novels. The assumption that the fiction in the circulating libraries is bought largely to meet a feminine demand is made on the ground that among men the corresponding section does not read. At any rate, that section does not read novels in any voracious manner, the manner that must account alike for the large output from the press of bad books, the low rate of pay obtained by all but the best writers, and the obscuration of the work of those writers by masses of rubbish. There are certain sporting novels which some idle men read, whether their acquaintance with sport is first-hand or not. But even these are read with conscious effort, and only when there is no other way of passing the time. Such readers look through the pages of their favorite authors as Gargery looked through the newspaper, picking out the methods of nobbling the favorite with the satisfaction enjoyed by that charming blacksmith when he spotted the “Joes.” And some idle men read detective fiction, however drearily mechanical and stale it may be. But idle men, and men whose occupations are not intellectual, do not read novels voraciously. In the matter of novel reading it really seems to me that the attitude of men and women differs. Both among men and among women we find two fairly distinct classes above, say, the legitimate range of any National Insurance scheme. We have a class that is engaged in hard mental work (a class that might fairly be called intellectual) and a class made up of one section that may work for its living in a methodical manner, and of another section that does not work at all. Among the men who are not intellectually employed little fiction is read, and that of a trivial sort; and among the opposite class of women—those who are intellectually employed—very little fiction is read. Novels do not draw the attention of the latter away from their serious absorptions. Remain the intellectually employed man and the unintellectual woman as possible consumers of what the circulating library may have to offer. The unintellectual woman will swallow anything—she has been found to have this voracity, and the vast masses of rubbish that are printed for the use of circulating libraries convict her of it. Meantime little is done for the intellectual man—that is to say, if we allow that only a small percentage of the novels now written have any status in letters.

The library and the smoking-room of certain London clubs contain in the late afternoon busy men relaxing, and some of these men try hard to read the novels that are provided for them by the circulating libraries. They may succeed with difficulty, and save where the author is one of a small group whom it is unnecessary to mention—for no one would write down exactly the same names—they prefer to fall back upon old favorites. This is, I think, a reproach to our story-writers of to-day. The women who in increasing numbers lead a life similar to that of busy men do not try to read novels. They have not as yet the same facility in unbending which men have learned to acquire; they spend their leisure in continuing to work—that is, in reading books containing the facts which they wish to acquire, the views which they wish to assimilate, and the theories which they wish to combat. I think it is bad for them to be so serious, and I think it hard on many men that, with all the will to let their minds be abstracted and their attentions rested by reading novels, so few novels should be provided of the right kind. By this I mean that there are so few simple tales well told, while the men who could write them will not do so. The fashion is not towards simplicity. The modern novel, when it is good, is too often an exercise in sociology.

And so I come to my plea. Cannot more good writers, sound thinkers, and artistic observers have consideration for those who want to “unbend over a novel”—I quote the phrase because I have seen it used as a text for a scornful tirade against a slack-backed class? I write as one of that class. My idea of what is much wanted is not primarily a work which will instruct, or widen sympathies, or move to better things. I ask that it should interest and amuse, either detaching the mind from worries, or making pleasant company for those who feel lazy. If it will do the other famous things, why, so much the better. Thackeray and Dickens, Balzac and Scott, can be read for relaxation alone, although their position in literature is what it is; their works can be unbent over, although they are great masters of fiction, and in spite of the knowledge that the unbending process may lead to occasional lapses in our appreciation of the author’s higher aims. Why should writers with less claim on our attention than these masters insist on trying to keep us in a strained attitude of respectful attention? I am wholly with those novelists who in their wide conception of their art consider that in the novel all themes may be discussed, but there are times when psychological subtleties or sociological conundrums do not appeal even to the most highly principled reader. Several of what may be termed our leading writers of fiction, being properly and nobly filled with other wishes than merely to amuse us, regard as a slight upon their art the desire of a reader to unbend over their books when there is nothing else more pressing to do. It is to be regretted that these leading writers have such fine and comfortable ideals of work, so that they are always inspired with the intent to instruct us or to make us sit up; and I believe that a good many publishers share this view. To unbend over a book exactly represents what a large class of readers want to do, and their gratitude to the author who gives them a story which neither irritates them by its absurdities nor hypnotizes them by its lofty alms or its psychological subtleties is deep.

Why are they given so little to read? If it were possible to cross-examine the prominent publishers as to their probable attitude towards the author of a good, straightforward, sensational novel, thoroughly well planned and thoroughly well written, their answers would reveal them as not averse from risking the issue. And if, further, we spoke of the matter to the booksellers, it is probable that they would declare, one and all, that such a book would be an easy commodity to sell. And there is a large public ready to buy, who badly want good stories. If we have the wholesale and retail machinery ready to sell, and the market ready to buy, the fault of the non-supply must be with the producers.

Our leading writers do not attempt the simple, sensational story; they do not try to give us anything of the thrill that we get when we take from our shelves “Les Esclaves de Paris,” “Edwin Drood,” “Uncle Silas,” or “Foul Play.” The feeling of these leading writers may be that the simple, sensational novel is in some way a trivial or inferior piece of work. They may believe that such productions appeal only in a vulgar way to an uncritical audience; that their author convicts himself of having low aims, and of being still in the ‘fifties. They may think that the task of writing a simple, sensational story is too facile to be worth essaying—that laurels won in such a way are too cheap. But the mere fact that there are scores of abominably bad sensational novels written every year indicates that to write a good one is not an easy task. It is a task that is too hard for those who make a habit of essaying it, for they show in their accomplishment their inability to meet the strain upon their intellect. Having industry and inventiveness, these gentlemen and ladles can only fail time after time because they do not try in any definite way to write what it lies within their power to write. Feeling that they have no arts of description, no powers of suggestion, and little knowledge of life upon which to depend, they serve up a hodge-podge of impossibilities and horrors in the hope that all the murders, abductions, arson, sorning and regrating will not be wasted, in the hope that some one terrific event will at least capture the attention of a reader. But upon many of us their primitive strategy is wasted, for these are not books that can be read by educated people. The fact that persons can be found to publish them need not prevent our leading writers from giving us, now and again, the old sort of sensational novel, part of whose charm lay in an excellent construction, while the possibilities of the plot were made the most of by due display of literary craft and acquaintance with affairs.

Many of our daily papers now, both London and provincial, morning and evening, provide feuilletons which, I believe, are designed to meet exactly the wants of those who wish to unbend over a novel. But very few persons with any grasp upon life or manners can read these serials with pleasure. The authors I have in my mind never know the details of the life that they depict, or, if they do, they deliberately travesty them, believing that one of the essentials of the melodramatic tale is that nothing whatever should occur in it which could occur conceivably in the daily round. Sensational novels have fallen for their writing into the wrong hands, or rather they are written in a steadily increasing number upon the fundamentally erroneous idea that, given lots of tremendous happenings, commensurate thrills must follow. This is to forget that it is possible to enjoy a good book in more ways than one, and that a work distinguished for its language, its psychology, or its teaching may, incidentally or essentially, have a good story for which it can be read alone.

It is the mistake of some of our best modern novelists to think that to tell a mere story is a cheap way of approaching the public. Let it be granted that the sensational novels of Wilkie Collins, say, or Gaboriau, are read mainly for their plots, and little for their elucidation of problems or even for their delineation of manners, it must still be remembered that many of the first novels in our language have good plots as well as other virtues which we expect in a great work of art. These novels may not in many instances be symmetrically constructed, but they have been written on a plan offering opportunities for developing situations.

Take such a book as “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and examine its plot carefully, and it will be seen to have all the elements which usually go tot the writing of a sensational novel, as well as being a most painful and eloquent indictment of hypocrisy and smugness, and an exercise in English prose. No one would suggest that “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” is a typical sensational novel, but it can be read for its excellent plot when the heart or the reason is not prepared to argue about its higher qualities. It is a fair example of the thoroughly good book that can be enjoyed in other ways than one. Cannot more such books be written? In this request there is no expectation that many living writers will be able to work on the plane of Mr. Hardy, but while there is purpose enough and to spare in Mr. Hardy’s relentless romance, the high reasons for writing “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” have not prevented him from telling a good story. “Tono-Bungay,” “Lady Rose’s Daughter,” “The Princess Casamassima,” “The Nebuly Coat,” “The Sinews of War,” and “The Secret Agent” are other admirable stories by well-known writers, where the story can be read for itself. Mr. Joseph Conrad’s is a particularly good example, for here is a picturesque writer, who has set down for us in other works passionate passages in men’s inmost lives and tremendous upheavals in Nature, turning from the recording of moral and oceanic typhoons and the describing of the indescribable, to write a detective story, and taking care to do it extremely well, with an ease that never degenerates into slovenliness. Of course, such a book is bound to delight those who love a novel for the sake of the story. The cry of many of us is for more, and I think it likely that if male and female voices were blended in the demand we should receive some satisfaction.

Mr. Wells in a lecture which I read in Le Temps alluded incidentally to the kind of reader who desires to unbend over a novel, and was, I think, unduly severe upon what he termed the attitude of “the weary Titan” towards fiction. He seemed to consider that if busy men asked to have a readable story supplied to them after a hard day’s work they were demanding from the novelist the prostitution of his craft and the sacrifice of his ideals. I believe with Mr. Wells that there is no height of teaching, no depth of morality, which a splendid novel may not illustrate; but I see why such splendid novels can be good reading alike for those who desire the gravest qualities and for those who want merely a story. And so does Mr. Wells, who has such first-rate books to his credit. Suspense is a great element of interest in a story; one writer may create that element in connection with a trivial incident of behavior, when another introduces the usual episode of the vanished necklace or the inexplicable alibi. Why in each case should the story not be equally well told? Why should not the details in what is called the sensational novel be as accurate? Why should not the author’s comments and reflections be equally illuminating? In real life necklaces are stolen and murders are committed; why should not the simpler story be told with equal expertness? Or, to put a question already implied—why should not our great novelists condescend, at any rate occasionally, to the simple tale, as their forerunners have done?

I believe the answer to this question may rest with that increasing class among us — the educated working women. If serious women insisted upon being supplied with readable novels—which they will not so long as they take no proper relaxation from their strenuous labors — the machine-made rubbish supplied by the circulating libraries would disappear; and such stories as “The Woman in White” would again add a joy to life.

A doctor, in accordance with the accepted routine of his calling, may recommend very small things for very big conditions. For a patient with integuments of waxy hue, swelling of ankles and eyelids, twitching muscles and chilly extremities, neuralgic pains and palpitations, insomnia and loss of business aptitude, a convenient formula may be pil/ aloes c. ferro (B.P.). The doctor is not flippant in giving such advice; and he is only silly when he expects too much outcome from it. I do not think that a common demand for readable stories will settle sex questions. All that the over-worked man or woman can get from reading a novel — the right kind of novel — is pleasant relaxation, but the habit of taking pleasant relaxation may have great general results. Jaded men appear to use novels in this way more than their sisters do, who should take example by Sarah Battle. She, after doing “her business, her duty, the thing she came into the world to do . . . unbent her mind afterwards over a book.”

A striking example has reached me in the last few days of the inestimable value of good stories to persons with tired intelligences. I have seen the diary of a naval officer who has been engaged since the outbreak of the war on very hard and harassing duties. The result was to leave him, during such free time as he could obtain, mentally, as well as physically, worn out. But he was able to revel in novel reading. I am certain that he read these books—works by Meredith, Conrad, Wells, and Birmingham, selected in a haphazard way—purely as a diversion, that the story was what he read them for, and that, through the medium of the story, he obtained precious relaxation of mental strain. But I am equally certain that this highly educated man would not have secured a similar valuable result from reading ill-written, ill-conceived sensation, although he was “unbending over a novel.”

I submit that it is not disrespectful to good novelists if we read their books casually; that the finest works of fiction can be read in that manner, uncritically, with the keenest enjoyment; that simple stories are only satisfactory when written by thoroughly expert hands, and should therefore be not beneath the consideration of the masters; and that we do not get a proper supply of simple stories.

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