The Literary Back-Stairs: The Americanization of Edward Bok Chapter 26

His complete absorption in the magazine work now compelled Bok to close his newspaper syndicate in New York and end the writing of his weekly newspaper literary letter. He decided, however, to transfer to the pages of his magazine his idea of making the American public more conversant with books and authors. Accordingly, he engaged Robert Bridges (the present editor of Scribner’s Magazine) to write a series of conversational book-talks under his nom de plume of “Droch.” Later, this was supplemented by the engagement of Hamilton W. Mabie, who for years reviewed the newest books.

In almost every issue of the magazine there appeared also an article addressed to the literary novice. Bok was eager, of course, to attract the new authors to the magazine; but, particularly, he had in mind the correction of the popular notion, then so prevalent (less so to-day, fortunately, but still existent), that only the manuscripts of famous authors were given favorable reading in editorial offices; that in these offices there really existed a clique, and that unless the writer knew the literary back-stairs he had a slim chance to enter and be heard.

In the minds of these misinformed writers, these back-stairs are gained by “knowing the editor” or through “having some influence with him.” These writers have conclusively settled two points in their own minds: first, that an editor is antagonistic to the struggling writer; and, second, that a manuscript sent in the ordinary manner to an editor never reaches him. Hence, some “influence” is necessary, and they set about to secure it.

Now, the truth is, of course, that there are no “literary back-stairs” to the editorial office of the modern magazine. There cannot be. The making of a modern magazine is a business proposition; the editor is there to make it pay. He can do this only if he is of service to his readers, and that depends on his ability to obtain a class of material essentially the best of its kind and varied in its character.

The “best,” while it means good writing, means also that it shall say something. The most desired writer in the magazine office is the man who has something to say, and knows how to say it. Variety requires that there shall be many of these writers, and it is the editor’s business to ferret them out. It stands to reason, therefore, that there can be no such thing as a “clique”; limitation by the editor of his list of authors would mean being limited to the style of the few and the thoughts of a handful. And with a public that easily tires even of the best where it continually comes from one source, such an editorial policy would be suicidal.

Hence, if the editor is more keenly alert for one thing than for another, it is for the new writer. The frequency of the new note in his magazine is his salvation; for just in proportion as he can introduce that new note is his success with his readers. A successful magazine is exactly like a successful store: it must keep its wares constantly fresh and varied to attract the eye and hold the patronage of its customers.

With an editor ever alive to the new message, the new note, the fresh way of saying a thing, the new angle on a current subject, whether in article or story—since fiction is really to-day only a reflection of modern thought—the foolish notion that an editor must be approached through “influence,” by a letter of introduction from some friend or other author, falls of itself. There is no more powerful lever to open the modern magazine door than a postage-stamp on an envelope containing a manuscript that says something. No influence is needed to bring that manuscript to the editor’s desk or to his attention. That he will receive it the sender need not for a moment doubt; his mail is too closely scanned for that very envelope.

The most successful authors have “broken into” the magazines very often without even a letter accompanying their first manuscript. The name and address in the right-hand corner of the first page; some “return” stamps in the left corner, and all that the editor requires is there. The author need tell nothing about the manuscript; if what the editor wants is in it he will find it. An editor can stand a tremendous amount of letting alone. If young authors could be made to realize how simple is the process of “breaking into” the modern magazine, which apparently gives them such needless heartburn, they would save themselves infinite pains, time, and worry.

Despite all the rubbish written to the contrary, manuscripts sent to the magazines of to-day are, in every case, read, and frequently more carefully read than the author imagines. Editors know that, from the standpoint of good business alone, it is unwise to return a manuscript unread. Literary talent has been found in many instances where it was least expected.

This does not mean that every manuscript received by a magazine is read from first page to last. There is no reason why it should be, any more than that all of a bad egg should be eaten to prove that it is bad. The title alone sometimes decides the fate of a manuscript. If the subject discussed is entirely foreign to the aims of the magazine, it is simply a case of misapplication on the author’s part; and it would be a waste of time for the editor to read something which he knows from its subject he cannot use.

This, of course, applies more to articles than to other forms of literary work, although unsuitability in a poem is naturally as quickly detected. Stories, no matter how unpromising they may appear at the beginning, are generally read through, since gold in a piece of fiction has often been found almost at the close. This careful attention to manuscripts in editorial offices is fixed by rules, and an author’s indorsement or a friend’s judgment never affects the custom.

At no time does the fallacy hold in a magazine office that “a big name counts for everything and an unknown name for nothing.” There can be no denial of the fact that where a name of repute is attached to a meritorious story or article the combination is ideal. But as between an indifferent story and a well-known name and a good story with an unknown name the editor may be depended upon to accept the latter. Editors are very careful nowadays to avoid the public impatience that invariably follows upon publishing material simply on account of the name attached to it. Nothing so quickly injures the reputation of a magazine in the estimation of its readers. If a person, taking up a magazine, reads a story attracted by a famous name, and the story disappoints, the editor has a doubly disappointed reader on his hands: a reader whose high expectations from the name have not been realized and who is disappointed with the story.

It is a well-known fact among successful magazine editors that their most striking successes have been made by material to which unknown names were attached, where the material was fresh, the approach new, the note different. That is what builds up a magazine; the reader learns to have confidence in what he finds in the periodical, whether it bears a famous name or not.

Nor must the young author believe that the best work in modern magazine literature “is dashed off at white heat.” What is dashed off reads dashed off, and one does not come across it in the well-edited magazine, because it is never accepted. Good writing is laborious writing, the result of revision upon revision. The work of masters such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling represents never less than eight or ten revisions, and often a far greater number. It was Stevenson who once said to Edward Bok, after a laborious correction of certain proofs: “My boy, I could be a healthy man, I think, if I did something else than writing. But to write, as I try to write, takes every ounce of my vitality.” Just as the best “impromptu” speeches are those most carefully prepared, so do the simplest articles and stories represent the hardest kind of work; the simpler the method seems and the easier the article reads, the harder, it is safe to say, was the work put into it.

But the author must also know when to let his material alone. In his excessive regard for style even so great a master as Robert Louis Stevenson robbed his work of much of the spontaneity and natural charm found, for example, in his Vailima Letters. The main thing is for a writer to say what he has to say in the best way, natural to himself, in which he can say it, and then let it alone—always remembering that, provided he has made himself clear, the message itself is of greater import than the manner in which it is said. Up to a certain point only is a piece of literary work an artistic endeavor. A readable, lucid style is far preferable to what is called a “literary style”—a foolish phrase, since it often means nothing except a complicated method of expression which confuses rather than clarifies thought. What the public wants in its literature is human nature, and that human nature simply and forcibly expressed. This is fundamental, and this is why true literature has no fashion and knows no change, despite the cries of the modern weaklings who affect weird forms. The clarity of Shakespeare is the clarity of to-day and will be that of to-morrow.

Did you happen to miss the previous chapter? Read Chapter 25

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