More Sound Advice From a Bygone Day

Way back in 1890, the Scottish poet, novelist, and literary critic Andrew Lang (best known in later years for his fairy-tale collections) gave a lecture at the South Kensington Museum, in aid of the College for Working Men and Women.  The title of the lecture was “How to Fail in Literature”, and it purported to be advice for those members of the audience who desired to fail at becoming successful writers.

It was, in fact, an extended list of things not to do for any audience members who desired to succeed at the same endeavor, and its advice and observations still hold true today.

For example:

Advice on how to secure the reverse of success should not be given to young authors alone.  Their kinsfolk and friends, also, can do much for their aid.  A lady who feels a taste for writing is very seldom allowed to have a quiet room, a quiet study.  If she retreats to her chill and fireless bed chamber, even there she may be chevied by her brothers, sisters, and mother.  It is noticed that cousins, and aunts, especially aunts, are of high service in this regard.  They never give an intelligent woman an hour to herself.

“Is Miss Mary in?”

“Yes, ma’am, but she is very busy.”

“Oh, she won’t mind me, I don’t mean to stay long.”

Then in rushes the aunt.

“Over your books again: my dear!  You really should not overwork yourself.  Writing something”; here the aunt clutches the manuscript, and looks at it vaguely.

“Well, I dare say it’s very clever, but I don’t care for this kind of thing myself.  Where’s your mother?  Is Jane better?  Now, do tell me, do you get much for writing all that?  Do you send it to the printers, or where?  How interesting, and that reminds me, you that are a novelist, have you heard how shamefully Miss Baxter was treated by Captain Smith?  No, well you might make something out of it.”

Here follows the anecdote, at prodigious length, and perfectly incoherent.

“Now, write that, and I shall always say I was partly the author.  You really should give me a commission, you know.  Well, good bye, tell your mother I called.  Why, there she is, I declare.  Oh, Susan, just come and hear the delightful plot for a novel that I have been giving Mary.”

And then there is this advice, on publishers’ contracts:


Here is “another way,” as the cookery books have it.  In your gratitude to your first publisher, covenant with him to let him have all the cheap editions of all your novels for the next five years, at his own terms.  If, in spite of the advice I have given you, you somehow manage to succeed, to become wildly popular, you will still have reserved to yourself, by this ingenious clause, a chance of ineffable pecuniary failure.  A plan generally approved of is to sell your entire copyright in your book for a very small sum.  You want the ready money, and perhaps you are not very hopeful.  But, when your book is in all men’s hands, when you are daily reviled by the small fry of paragraphers, when the publisher is clearing a thousand a year by it, while you only got a hundred down, then you will thank me, and will acknowledge that, in spite of apparent success, you are a failure after all.

Ouch.  I tell you, and I tell you true, that bit of advice remains as sound and necessary today as it was in 1890.  (Just about every writer has at least one bad contract in their publishing history, and the reason is usually, as Lang said, “You want the ready money.”)

There’s a lot more where that came from, and it’s available for free on Project Gutenberg.  (Amazon will also sell you a copy, if you prefer – but Andrew Lang has been dead for over a century, so it’s not like he needs the royalties.)

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