Notes on writing

Writing advice from Arnold Bennett

Arnold Bennett

I haven’t read a ton of writing manuals (it shows, Ed.), but I have a small shelf’s worth at home, and I’m always on the look-out for something that doesn’t go over the same old ground of adverbs (bad), showing not telling (good), and inciting incidents (necessary). Some time ago I read an article by Professor John Sutherland, in which Arnold Bennett’s How To Become an Author was mentioned in passing. I made a note and eventually bought a tatty first edition on-line.

I’m not sure who, if anyone, reads Arnold Bennett nowadays, but in the first three decades of the twentieth century, there weren’t many writers who outsold or out-earned him. By 1912, when he had established himself as a leading writer of realist fiction, he was able to buy (and lavishly furnish) a Queen Anne house in Essex and splash out on a steam yacht called Velsa. Bennett turned his pen and typewriter to everything: novels, short stories, plays, non-fiction, and journalism, making a lot of money in the process. For that reason he was sneered at the literary elite, but I don’t think it bothered him too much. At the end of each year, he would record in his journal how many words he had published in the preceding twelve months and how much they had earned him.

How To Become an Author was published in 1903, before he had achieved that fame and fortune. The first of Bennett’s novels to get any attention, The Grand Babylon Hotel, had been published just the year before, and the Clayhanger series was yet to begin. So How To Become an Author was the work of a writer still trying to establish himself. This is not a book is not a work of wisdom handed down from the literary Olympus, but a practical guide for jobbing writers, of whom Bennett was one at this time. From this distance it also gives an interesting insight into the writer’s working life at the beginning of the twentieth century.

(Ah, the twentieth century…it’s where I spent most of my life, and I still think of it as fairly recent. Nothing born of the twentieth century seems ancient to me, and yet when I do the mental arithmetic, this book is almost 120 years old…)

In the opening chapter, ‘The Literary Career’, Bennett distinguishes between the main types of writing. He classifies journalism into two branches, the mechanical and the literary.

[The mechanical branch] is mainly the concern of reporters, of all sorts, and of sub-editors. It is that part of the executive side of journalism which can be carried out with the least expenditure of original brain-power. It consists in reporting — parliament, fashionable weddings, cricket-matches. company meetings, fat-stock shows; and in work of a sub-editorial character…

Has the mechanical branch changed much since Bennett’s time? For ‘parliament’, substitute politics; for ‘fashionable weddings’, substitute celebrities; for ‘cricket-matches’, substitute sport, for ‘company meetings’, substitute business; for ‘fat-stock shows’, substitute farming. It doesn’t seem so different, though there are vast areas of modern life — technology, ‘lifestyle’, food and drink, personal finance — that are nowadays considered suitable subjects for journalism but perhaps weren’t in Bennett’s day.

Then there is the literary branch, which Bennett calls ‘the higher branch’:

This branch merges with the lower in the person of the “descriptive reporter”, who may be a genius with the wages of an ambassador, like the late GW Steevens, or a mere hack who describes the Lord Mayor’s procession and writes “stalwart emissaries of the law” when he means policemen. It includes, besides the aristocracy of descriptive writing, reviews, dramatic and other critics, financial experts, fashion-writers, paragraphists, miscellaneous contributors regular and irregular, assorted leader-writers, assistant editors and editors.

I had to look up GW Steevens, the ‘genius with the wages of an ambassador’. He hasn’t altogether vanished into obscurity, which in today’s terms means that there is a Wikipedia article about him. From this I learned ‘he was the most famous war correspondent of his time’, covering wars in Sudan and South Africa. I also had to look up the term ‘paragraphist’. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition as ‘A journalist (usually freelance) who writes newspaper paragraphs’. I may be mistaken but I don’t think this journalistic niche exists any more. Still it’s interesting that it was once a source of income for freelancers.

Bennett emphasises that journalism alone will never make the writer rich:

The highest journalistic post in the kingdom is reputed to be worth three thousand a year, an income at which scores of lawyers, grocers, bishops, music-hall artistes, and novelist would turn up their noses.

On the whole it cannot be made too clear that journalism is never a gold-mine, except for newspaper proprietors, and not always for them. The journalist sells his brains in a weak market. Other things being equal, he receives decidedly less than he would receive in any other pursuit save those of the graphic arts, sculpture, and music. He must console himself by meditating on upon the romance, the publicity, and the influential character of his profession.

I suspect for most journalists, little has changed since Bennett’s time. When it comes to fiction, Bennett is sceptical of early or overnight success:

A slowly-built reputation as a novelist is nearly indestructible; neither time nor decay of talent nor sheer carelessness will quite kill it; your Mudie subscriber, once well won, is the most faithful adherent in the world. But the reputation that springs up like a mushroom is apt to fade like a mushroom…

‘Mudie’ was another unfamiliar term to me, but it was the name of a popular subscription library of the time. Think of a Victorian version of Kindle Unlimited, though with Mudie, you only got one volume at a time in return for your guinea annual subscription. There is a money to be made in fiction, according to Bennett, much more than in journalism:

Speaking broadly, fiction is a lucrative profession…Never before, despite the abolition of the three-volume novel, did so many average painstaking novelists earn such respectable incomes as the present day. And the rewards of the really successful novelist seem to increase year by year.

Bennett says that the tyro writer usually begins with short stories, where there is an established market of magazines and weekly papers. The leading magazines will pay fifteen guineas for a short story, though he cautions that it is impossible to make a living from short stories alone in England. He identifies two kinds of author who make a decent living from fiction, the Really Successful Novelist and the Sagacious Mediocrity. As for the first of these, life sounds pretty good:

The novelist who once really gets himself talked about, or, in other words, sells at least ten thousand copies of a book, and who is capable of living up to his reputation, soon finds he is living in a bed of roses.

After listing the different kinds of rights that can be sold — book rights, serial rights, foreign rights — Bennett estimates that the Really Successful Novelist will be making two thousand four hundred pounds for each novel. Bennet says that this novelist will produce three novels in two years, as well as the occasional collection of short stories, for which he will already have earned money from the magazines and weeklies. The result of all this will be quite satisfactory.

By writing a hundred and fifty thousand words a year he will make an annual income of three thousand five hundred pounds. His habit will be to write a thousand words a day three days a week, and on each working day he will earn about twenty-five pounds. All which is highly agreeable — but then that man is highly exceptional.

Exceptional indeed, and I think most authors today, especially those of us working in the Grub Street 4.0 world of self-publishing, will look back in astonishment at this image of a writer who can make a highly agreeable living by writing a thousand words a day on three days a week. It cannot be emphasised too strongly: Bennett knew what he was talking about here. Let’s move on to the Sagacious Mediocrity, who may be, as they say, more relatable. Bennett is unsentimental but encouraging about the prospects of such a creature:

But the average mediocre novelist, too good to excite a mob to admiration, and not good enough to be taken seriously by persons of taste, can only have a polite interest in the foregoing statistics [of the Really Successful Novelist]. It remains for me to assure the average mediocre novelist in posse, that, if he minds his task, produces regularly, perseveres in one vein, judiciously compromises between his own ideals and the desires of the public, and conscientiously puts his best workmanship into all he does, he may safely rely on a reasonable return in coin. There are scores of mediocrities who make upwards of five hundred a year from fiction by labour that cannot be called fatiguing, writers who never accomplish anything worthy of the name of art, but who fulfil harmless and perhaps useful function in our effete civilisation. The novelist, even the mediocrity, works under felicitous conditions. He is tied to no place and no times. He probably writes for three hours a day, five days a week, nine months in the year. He can produce his tale beneath an Italian sky as easily as in the groves of Brixton or Hampstead. No man is his master, and he is dependent on nobody’s goodwill and on nobody’s whim. Only three things can seriously hurt him: a grave failure of health, a European war, and a prolonged strike of bookbinders.

That’s a long passage to quote, but it provides a good example of Bennett’s mordant style in this book and is mercilessly realistic about the trade of the commercial fiction writer. Despite the fact that these are very different times and that few of us could get away with working for only nine months of the year, I find it oddly inspiring. By the way, in poss, another phrase new to me, means ‘in possibility’ or ‘having the potential to exist’.

Let’s move swiftly on to Bennett’s comments on non-fictional writing in this chapter. As a sole pursuit, it is, he thinks, a very tough way to make a living, but it can be done:

The literary aspirant who merely wants to write, and cannot write fiction, will have to be content with the prospect of a smaller income than he could derive from the imaginative gift did he possess it. But nevertheless, with ingenuity, he can make money. Popular biographies — especially of princes, artists, and scoundrels, anecdotic histories of places, people, and pastimes…the field open to the imagination of the ingenious hack is well-nigh boundless; in my opinion it is yet far form being fully exploited.

I think opportunities for the non-fiction author are greater now than in Bennett’s day, particularly if they are operating in the educational or self-help fields, particularly if the book can be turned into an on-line course or consultancy brand.

This blog post is already far too long and I’m only at the end of the book’s first chapter. I will return to Arnold Bennet’s How To Become an Author in some future posts. There is still much of interest and insight to be gleaned.

[Photograph of Arnold Bennett courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]