Magazine article The Spectator

Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear?

Magazine article The Spectator

Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear?

Article excerpt

Some years ago I bought a little book by Arnold Bennett from a stall at a church fete. It cost only a few pence, a real bargain, for this collection of pieces written for The New Age magazine between 1908 and 1911 is full of interest and good sense. Bennett used a pseudonym, Jacob Tonson, for his column, and, if I had Margaret Drabble's fine biography to hand, I might know why. Perhaps it was to allow him to be outspoken. But I doubt if this was the reason. There can have been few in literary London who didn't recognise Bennett's style.

Much is still to the point. Bennett quotes a letter from a publisher to an unnamed author: 'I am awfully sorry that we can't take your novel, which is immensely clever, and which interested my partner more than anything he has read in a good while.' Despite which, the novel wouldn't do. Advice for the aspiring author followed: 'Find out what the people like to read and then write a story along these lines . . . Remember that novel writing is as much of a business as making calico.' And so on.

Actually I doubt if this letter was authentic. I suspect Bennett concocted it to make the point that 'it is intensely stupid to ask a novelist to study the market with a view to obtaining large circulations. If he does not write to please himself -- if his own taste does not naturally coincide with the taste of the million -- he will never reach the million by taking thought.' Bestsellers 'are born, not made'.

This is a truth worth remarking at a time when Jeffrey Archer has re-emerged with a new novel and Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code is again in the news. The bestselling author is nothing if not sincere. He believes in his work, must indeed do so utterly, otherwise readers would sense that they were being condescended to. The author's tongue must be kept out of the cheek. A bestselling novel may be trash, but no successful author ever set out deliberately to write trash. …

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