I was told authoritatively the other day that the editors of the popular fifteen-cent magazines, an increasing and formidable army that is driving the book trade to its last intrenchment, thus exhort all contributors: "Don't be literary! Whatever you do, don't be literary."
Some time since I was requested, for reasons that will not interest the public, to read carefully the contents of a certain magazine. I was told—it was a new magazine—that it had secured already a novel for serial purposes by one of the eminent women writers, signed a contract with another, and made contracts with several of the leading Britishers.
I read the magazine from cover to cover, and as carefully as I would read Joseph Conrad. The stories—all by the non-eminent, as it happened— were uniformly interesting, fresh, vivacious; and uniformly ill-written. I said "from cover to cover," but this is an inaccuracy unpardonable in one engaged in the stimulating task of criticising other authors. I really put the magazine down when I was half-way through the third story from the last, and this is the sentence which discouraged me from further effort: "Blank, having lost his pyjamas, went to bed in his shirt-tail." The story was quite inoffensive in all but taste, and showed a certain yarn-spinning impetus.
If one will take a deliberate course in these fifteen-cent magazines, one will hardly be able to avoid wondering if the editors in question really find it necessary to exhort. For instance: one young woman, still in her twenties, highly promising from every point of view, and one of the best-paid short story writers in the country—which means in the world-—making as much a year as a university president, constantly uses "like" for "as" or "as if": "She wore her hat like her friend did." "They walked like they were in a hurry." In one of the best fifteen-cent monthlies, one that publishes the work of some of the most notable and least exhausted authors of the day, and one that has given its readers articles and fiction of real worth, the editor recently allowed the following sentence to open a story: "The chief of police addressed his inferior in crisp and concise verbiage."
Even certain of our "well-known" that began the literary career with high ambitions and studied phrasing, have fallen into a style so slipshod that it consorts harmoniously with the increasing attenuation of their yarn-spinning faculty; and the novelists that have been forced by a too economical public into serialization and into rapid-fire action by the willing expender of fifteen cents, show a falling off in first-hand studies of life and character that is equally noticeable. It is extraordinary that this really novelty-loving public of ours will stand for rehash in fiction.
There is no question that the men authors, old and new, sin more frequently than the women, and I fancy this is not only because civilization has provided so many more distractions for the male than for the reputable female, but because they are far more likely to have assumed the burden of the family early in life. And when a literary man's fame—or prosperity—approaches its zenith, then it is that he has to reckon with his women. The wife with increasing income is sooner or later presiding over an "establishment"; her social circle has widened, and naturally she wishes it to widen evermore; even, if there be a ghost of a chance, as high as Central Park East. And growing boys and girls in fashionable schools increase expenditures by several thousands a year.
Far be it from me to assert that no literary women are supporting families; but not only are women workers as a rule, and particularly those with responsibilities, more careful of money, more fearful of the future, and less self-indulgent by nature, but their outside temptations are less. Moreover, human vanity in the male turns more readily in to snobbery than in the female. His loyal wife may catch it, but his co-worker of a once diffident sex is normally, when her gifts are first-rate, so preoccupied with the work itself, so restless with world curiosity, and so ambitious to beat man at his own game, that she has little time for social raids. She recognizes that it is well to know society, in common with other phases of life, at first hand; and she goes through a phase herself when she looks upon social recognition as one of her rewards. But unless she is a born snob she is too wary to mortgage her freedom and her talents for the harrowing necessity of a permanent "front." This may argue an inferior social instinct, but it is good for literature.
Of course the first consequence of writing under pressure in behalf of monthly bills of increasing magnitude, to say nothing of doctors and travel, is a complete loss of the old pleasure, both subtle and poignant, of composition, of what is somewhat inflatedly known as "creative work." No author can enjoy the gradual development of a character, reacted upon by circumstance and incident and full of surprises, nor the combining and recombining of words until a sentence is rhythmic, or suave, or musical, or powerful—or harsh, maybe after work has become a grind and so many hundred thousand words must be written a year or disaster befall.
With the large number of magazines in the market to-day an industrious author can have two or even three serials running at once, and publish as many short stories as he can write; and what with hacking over old ideas, he can write four in the same time he formerly devoted to one. Of course such authors, whose names are in every magazine, become increasingly dexterous; making their numerous stories—it is rarely they essay the novel—almost as rapidly and smartly as a manufacturer turns out ready-made clothing. They earn a decent income, some of them receiving prices for a single story that would have kept an author of an older and simpler day half a year. Many of the new writers have worked up an enthusiastic magazine following that compels the editors to pay them prices ranging from eight to fifteen hundred dollars for a short story. Writing stories pays; therefore they invest their mental and physical capital in the business exactly as they would venture a tidy sum left them by thrifty parents in any business, at the same time easy and lucrative, that happened to be on the market.
So far as I have been able to discover, no one has attempted to track this degradation of magazine literature to its source. I for one do not attribute it to an automatic response to a sudden demand for cheap fiction, to any abrupt change of mental habit on the part of the public. I attribute it primarily to the dietetic standard of the old thirty-five-cent magazines. Year after year, yea, generation after generation, these periodicals published nice stories expressed in nice precise English; seldom a grain of originality either in style or subject. Occasionally a smashing story would gain entrance—heaven to this day only knows how—and the nation-wide sensation it made should have conveyed a hint to the editorial powers that a change of policy would be both welcome and profitable. But no, the reaction in that office would linger on into the years; it was as if the dieticians had suddenly gone on a debauch of ham and eggs, and were forced by awful pangs to return forthwith to gruel, custard and wine jelly. They pursued their safe, their anaemic, their bloodless and their sexless way, asking only that the stories submitted to them, mental guides of the nation, be nice, local, dialectic, well written—it is this indefective writing that passes with us for "style"—and with nothing in the content to make the gentle reader think.
Well, as time went on the gentle reader ceased to be gentle. He began to growl for a diet worthy of a virile and hungry mind, his mental stomach turned at the feeble travesties of life, or at those pictures of littleistic life which if true were too insignificant to write about. He wanted the "real thing," pictures of life as he knew it or would like to know it. ("He" is used for mere convenience, be it understood!) And when he made his insistence and his revolt known his demand was met. The old guard was too old to listen—or, if they heard, it was but to sniff—^but it reached the ears of keen enterprising men—men who, had this cry for a new sort of literary menu never gone up, no doubt would have catered with equal success to the popular taste on the frankly unspiritual plane. And the result we know.
There is no question that the once gentle reader is now having his blase palate tickled with the variety he demands; but to an unprejudiced observer it would seem that although the ingredients are many the result is hash. In time I hope and believe it will choke him. For amidst the waste and welter of the new magazines he has ever the opportunity to remodel his taste upon a respectable number of stories still admirably conceived and expressed. We have not gone to the dogs yet.
This article originally ran in the July 3, 1915, issue of the magazine.