Friday, August 27, 2010

Writers, Readers, & Reptutations!

 Our book today is Philip Waller's massive, utterly delightful Writers, Readers, & Reputations from 2006, and it finishes off our little quintet of books about books this time around (I've read every such book that's ever been written – what can I say? Reading about reading fascinates me – and I'll get to all of them here sooner or later, but five is enough for now).

And boy, HOW it finishes things off! Waller's book is a stunning, almost overwhelming masterpiece. He's staked out the period of a “long” Edwardian era in England and completely, freakishly absorbed every last scintilla of information on his subject, which is nothing less than the whole world of letters during those years, from 1870 to 1918. He covers everything from writers' lives to reading tours to lending libraries to book groups to manufacture and distribution, and he does it all in such an winningly readable voice that you never feel crushed by the weight of his expertise. The pages fly by (all 1150 of them), and what emerges is a picture of the reading life of the Edwardian age in such pointillist detail that you can't help but wish we had similar volumes for every other era. That would be great, but I don't know where we'd find the scholars to amass the data, much less the writers to make it this engaging.

Two things mark this great book's strongest points: first, Waller has no particular pet theory to advance (he's mainly just interested in giving us as full an account as he can, in the liveliest language), and second, he's perfectly willing to let the writers of the time speak their piece at length – the book is full of great quotes, and they're given in full rather than in snippets. Here's the always-gloomy George Gissing on the perils of the literary life, for instance:
With a lifetime of dread experience behind me, I say that he who encourages any young man or woman to look for his living to 'literature', commits no less than a crime … Hateful as is the struggle for life in every form, this rough-and-tumble of the literary arena seems to me sordid and degrading beyond all others. Oh, your prices per thousand words! Oh, your paragraphings and your interviewings! And oh, the black despair that awaits those down-trodden in the fray.


It's amazing how many different facets of the literary life Waller tracks down and shows to us in full detail. There are long, engrossing chapters on every aspect you could think of, including an amusing set-piece on authors as fashion-plates:
Jerome K. Jerome attracted [publicity] by wearing and old tweed cap, Keir Hardie-style, to offset an immaculate frock coat. This was scarcely big-league stuff. Nor was Bret Harte's trick of commanding a daily buttonhole from a Piccadilly florist, sent in a little box to him wherever he occasioned to stay. For a really booming statement, it was necessary to behold Mark Twain in his gleaming white suits. Equally magnificent, Wilde invented himself as an exquisite- or harlequin, Theordore Watts-Dunton preferred to call him … A 'great fat oily beast', thought Edith Somerville, who met him in 1888. This was only marginally more flattering than 'the great white slug' proposed in the same year by Lady Colin Campbell …


And Waller also makes some real contributions to a more fair study of the literary landscape, giving us long digressions on best-selling authors of the time who've now (in almost every case very deservedly) fallen into permanent obscurity. The foremost of these hindmost is surely novelist Hall Caine, whose insipid water-balloon books outsold everybody twice over and made their author a very, very rich man. Whenever I feel tempted to despair at the popularity of author like Stephen King or James Patterson, I remind myself of writers like Caine – and Waller could have settled for merely reinforcing the reductions of readers like me. But instead, he digs deeper and presents a better, more fleshed out portrait of the man and his counterparts. It wasn't until I first read this book that I learned Caine used a chunk of his fame and money to aid Jewish refugees of Tsarist oppression, for instance. Doesn't change the fact that the man's novels are junk, but it certainly makes him more interesting.

And what about book-reviewing, you must know I'd ask? Yep – the subject is fully covered (and in a gratifyingly early chapter) in all its heights and pitfalls, from log-rolling to the ever-popular topic of how authors (and later their publicists) can stack the odds in their favor when it comes to wooing reviewers:
Authors were not without means to influence the reception of their work, although Trollope's Lady Carbury, by sleeping with a reviewer, in The Way We Live Now, must be considered extreme. The complimentary copy system was increasingly favoured. The Society hostess Lady Dorothy Nevill, who had known Bulwer Lytton in his best-selling prime, noted in 1906: 'I always feel sorry that he never gave me his novels; in those days authors were not nearly so generous as they are to-day, when books are showered in all directions – more given than read.'


Writers, Readers, & Reputations is what's known in my immediate circle as a 'Steve book' – meaning it's so long and densely researched that I'm likely the only person in a hundred mile radius who'd every consider reading it, much less read it, bookmark it, and annotate it for sheer pleasure. My circle tends to groan when they see me toting around a 'Steve book,' because they know I'm not only going to read such tomes but also recommend them, and they consider that an impossibility (years ago, in response to such a recommendation about a very interesting book on Britain's King George I, an exasperated companion blurted out, “That's an entire year's reading for me! One year, reading nothing but that big, ugly, boring book!”)(I thought it best not to point out that the original German version was much better than the translation).

But impossibility or no, I do indeed recommend Writers, Readers & Reputations! Yes, it's formidably big – but it's also scrupulously, reliably enjoyable, one of the best books on books I've ever read. It's worth a year, if it comes to that.

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