How to Fail in Literature
Andrew Lang

This etext was prepared by David Price, email
from the 1890 Field and Tuer edition.



This Lecture was delivered at the South Kensington Museum, in aid of
the College for Working Men and Women. As the Publishers, perhaps
erroneously, believe that some of the few authors who were not
present may be glad to study the advice here proffered, the Lecture
is now printed. It has been practically re-written, and, like the
kiss which the Lady returned to Rodolphe, is revu, corrige, et
considerablement augmente.

A. L.


What should be a man's or a woman's reason for taking literature as a
vocation, what sort of success ought they to desire, what sort of
ambition should possess them? These are natural questions, now that
so many readers exist in the world, all asking for something new, now
that so many writers are making their pens "in running to devour the
way" over so many acres of foolscap. The legitimate reasons for
enlisting (too often without receiving the shilling) in this army of
writers are not far to seek. A man may be convinced that he has
useful, or beautiful, or entertaining ideas within him, he may hold
that he can express them in fresh and charming language. He may, in
short, have a "vocation," or feel conscious of a vocation, which is
not exactly the same thing. There are "many thyrsus bearers, few
mystics," many are called, few chosen. Still, to be sensible of a
vocation is something, nay, is much, for most of us drift without any
particular aim or predominant purpose. Nobody can justly censure
people whose chief interest is in letters, whose chief pleasure is in
study or composition, who rejoice in a fine sentence as others do in
a well modelled limb, or a delicately touched landscape, nobody can
censure them for trying their fortunes in literature. Most of them
will fail, for, as the bookseller's young man told an author once,
they have the poetic temperament, without the poetic power. Still
among these whom Pendennis has tempted, in boyhood, to run away from
school to literature as Marryat has tempted others to run away to
sea, there must be some who will succeed. But an early and intense
ambition is not everything, any more than a capacity for taking pains
is everything in literature or in any art.

Some have the gift, the natural incommunicable power, without the
ambition, others have the ambition but no other gift from any Muse.
This class is the more numerous, but the smallest class of all has
both the power and the will to excel in letters. The desire to
write, the love of letters may shew itself in childhood, in boyhood,
or youth, and mean nothing at all, a mere harvest of barren blossom
without fragrance or fruit. Or, again, the concern about letters may
come suddenly, when a youth that cared for none of those things is
waning, it may come when a man suddenly finds that he has something
which he really must tell. Then he probably fumbles about for a
style, and his first fresh impulses are more or less marred by his
inexperience of an art which beguiles and fascinates others even in
their school-days.

It is impossible to prophesy the success of a man of letters from his
early promise, his early tastes; as impossible as it is to predict,
from her childish grace, the beauty of a woman.

But the following remarks on How to fail in Literature are certainly
meant to discourage nobody who loves books, and has an impulse to
tell a story, or to try a song or a sermon. Discouragements enough
exist in the pursuit of this, as of all arts, crafts, and
professions, without my adding to them. Famine and Fear crouch by
the portals of literature as they crouch at the gates of the
Virgilian Hades. There is no more frequent cause of failure than
doubt and dread; a beginner can scarcely put his heart and strength
into a work when he knows how long are the odds against his victory,
how difficult it is for a new man to win a hearing, even though all
editors and publishers are ever pining for a new man. The young
fellow, unknown and unwelcomed, who can sit down and give all his
best of knowledge, observation, humour, care, and fancy to a
considerable work has got courage in no common portion; he deserves
to triumph, and certainly should not be disheartened by our old
experience. But there be few beginners of this mark, most begin so
feebly because they begin so fearfully. They are already too
discouraged, and can scarce do themselves justice. It is easier to
write more or less well and agreeably when you are certain of being
published and paid, at least, than to write well when a dozen
rejected manuscripts are cowering (as Theocritus says) in your chest,
bowing their pale faces over their chilly knees, outcast, hungry,
repulsed from many a door. To write excellently, brightly,
powerfully, with these poor unwelcomed wanderers, returned MSS., in
your possession, is difficult indeed. It might be wiser to do as M.
Guy de Maupassant is rumoured to have done, to write for seven years,
and shew your essays to none but a mentor as friendly severe as M.
Flaubert. But all men cannot have such mentors, nor can all afford
so long an unremunerative apprenticeship. For some the better plan
is NOT to linger on the bank, and take tea and good advice, as Keats
said, but to plunge at once in mid-stream, and learn swimming of

One thing, perhaps, most people who succeed in letters so far as to
keep themselves alive and clothed by their pens will admit, namely,
that their early rejected MSS. DESERVED TO BE REJECTED. A few days
ago there came to the writer an old forgotten beginner's attempt by
himself. Whence it came, who sent it, he knows not; he had forgotten
its very existence. He read it with curiosity; it was written in a
very much better hand than his present scrawl, and was perfectly
legible. But READABLE it was not. There was a great deal of work in
it, on an out of the way topic, and the ideas were, perhaps, not
quite without novelty at the time of its composition. But it was
cramped and thin, and hesitating between several manners; above all
it was uncommonly dull. If it ever was sent to an editor, as I
presume it must have been, that editor was trebly justified in
declining it. On the other hand, to be egotistic, I have known
editors reject the attempts of those old days, and afterwards express
lively delight in them when they struggled into print, somehow,
somewhere. These worthy men did not even know that they had despised
and refused what they came afterwards rather to enjoy.

Editors and publishers, these keepers of the gates of success, are
not infallible, but their opinion of a beginner's work is far more
correct than his own can ever be. They should not depress him quite,
but if they are long unanimous in holding him cheap, he is warned,
and had better withdraw from the struggle. He is either incompetent,
or he has the makings of a Browning. He is a genius born too soon.
He may readily calculate the chances in favour of either alternative.

So much by way of not damping all neophytes equally: so much we may
say about success before talking of the easy ways that lead to
failure. And by success here is meant no glorious triumph; the
laurels are not in our thoughts, nor the enormous opulence (about a
fourth of a fortunate barrister's gains) which falls in the lap of a
Dickens or a Trollope. Faint and fleeting praise, a crown with as
many prickles as roses, a modest hardly-gained competence, a good
deal of envy, a great deal of gossip--these are the rewards of genius
which constitute a modern literary success. Not to reach the
moderate competence in literature is, for a professional man of
letters of all work, something like failure. But in poetry to-day a
man may succeed, as far as his art goes, and yet may be unread, and
may publish at his own expense, or not publish at all. He pleases
himself, and a very tiny audience: I do not call that failure. I
regard failure as the goal of ignorance, incompetence, lack of common
sense, conceited dulness, and certain practical blunders now to be
explained and defined.

The most ambitious may accept, without distrust, the following advice
as to How to fail in Literature. The advice is offered by a mere
critic, and it is an axiom of the Arts that the critics "are the
fellows who have failed," or have not succeeded. The persons who
really can paint, or play, or compose seldom tell us how it is done,
still less do they review the performances of their contemporaries.
That invidious task they leave to the unsuccessful novelists. The
instruction, the advice are offered by the persons who cannot achieve
performance. It is thus that all things work together in favour of
failure, which, indeed, may well appear so easy that special
instruction, however competent, is a luxury rather than a necessary.
But when we look round on the vast multitude of writers who, to all
seeming, deliberately aim at failure, who take every precaution in
favour of failure that untutored inexperience can suggest, it becomes
plain that education in ill-success, is really a popular want. In
the following remarks some broad general principles, making disaster
almost inevitable, will first be offered, and then special methods of
failing in all special departments of letters will be ungrudgingly
communicated. It is not enough to attain failure, we should deserve
it. The writer, by way of insuring complete confidence, would
modestly mention that he has had ample opportunities of study in this
branch of knowledge. While sifting for five or six years the
volunteered contributions to a popular periodical, he has received
and considered some hundredweights of manuscript. In all these
myriad contributions he has not found thirty pieces which rose even
to the ordinary dead level of magazine work. He has thus enjoyed
unrivalled chances of examining such modes of missing success as
spontaneously occur to the human intellect, to the unaided ingenuity
of men, women, and children. {1}

He who would fail in literature cannot begin too early to neglect his
education, and to adopt every opportunity of not observing life and
character. None of us is so young but that he may make himself
perfect in writing an illegible hand. This method, I am bound to
say, is too frequently overlooked. Most manuscripts by ardent
literary volunteers are fairly legible. On the other hand there are
novelists, especially ladies, who not only write a hand wholly
declining to let itself be deciphered, but who fill up the margins
with interpolations, who write between the lines, and who cover the
page with scratches running this way and that, intended to direct the
attention to after-thoughts inserted here and there in corners and on
the backs of sheets. To pin in scraps of closely written paper and
backs of envelopes adds to the security for failure, and produces a
rich anger in the publisher's reader or the editor.

The cultivation of a bad handwriting is an elementary precaution,
often overlooked. Few need to be warned against having their MSS.
typewritten, this gives them a chance of being read with ease and
interest, and this must be neglected by all who have really set their
hearts on failure. In the higher matters of education it is well to
be as ignorant as possible. No knowledge comes amiss to the true man
of letters, so they who court disaster should know as little as may

Mr. Stevenson has told the attentive world how, in boyhood, he
practised himself in studying and imitating the styles of famous
authors of every age. He who aims at failure must never think of
style, and should sedulously abstain from reading Shakespeare, Bacon,
Hooker, Walton, Gibbon, and other English and foreign classics. He
can hardly be too reckless of grammar, and should always place
adverbs and other words between "to" and the infinitive, thus:
"Hubert was determined to energetically and on all possible
occasions, oppose any attempt to entangle him with such." Here, it
will be noticed, "such" is used as a pronoun, a delightful flower of
speech not to be disregarded by authors who would fail. But some one
may reply that several of our most popular novelists revel in the
kind of grammar which I am recommending. This is undeniable, but
certain people manage to succeed in spite of their own earnest
endeavours and startling demerits. There is no royal road to
failure. There is no rule without its exception, and it may be urged
that the works of the gentlemen and ladies who "break Priscian's
head"--as they would say themselves--may be successful, but are not
literature. Now it is about literature that we are speaking.

In the matter of style, there is another excellent way. You need not
neglect it, but you may study it wrongly. You may be affectedly
self-conscious, you may imitate the ingenious persons who carefully
avoid the natural word, the spontaneous phrase, and employ some other
set of terms which can hardly be construed. You may use, like a
young essayist whom I have lovingly observed, a proportion of eighty
adjectives to every sixty-five other words of all denominations. You
may hunt for odd words, and thrust them into the wrong places, as
where you say that a

man's nose is "beetling," that the sun sank in "a cauldron of
daffodil chaos," and the like. {2} You may use common words in an
unwonted sense, keeping some private interpretation clearly before
you. Thus you may speak, if you like to write partly in the tongue
of Hellas, about "assimilating the ethos" of a work of art, and so
write that people shall think of the processes of digestion. You may
speak of "exhausting the beauty" of a landscape, and, somehow, convey
the notion of sucking an orange dry. Or you may wildly mix your
metaphors, as when a critic accuses Mr. Browning of "giving the
irridescence of the poetic afflatus," as if the poetic afflatus were
blown through a pipe, into soap, and produced soap bubbles. This is
a more troublesome method than the mere picking up of every newspaper
commonplace that floats into your mind, but it is equally certain to
lead--where you want to go. By combining the two fashions a great
deal may be done. Thus you want to describe a fire at sea, and you
say, "the devouring element lapped the quivering spars, the mast, and
the sea-shouldering keel of the doomed Mary Jane in one coruscating
catastrophe. The sea deeps were incarnadined to an alarming extent
by the flames, and to escape from such many plunged headlong in their
watery bier."

As a rule, authors who would fail stick to one bad sort of writing;
either to the newspaper commonplace, or to the out of the way and
inappropriate epithets, or to the common word with a twist on it.
But there are examples of the combined method, as when we call the
trees round a man's house his "domestic boscage." This combination
is difficult, but perfect for its purpose. You cannot write worse
than "such." To attain perfection the young aspirant should confine
his reading to the newspapers (carefully selecting his newspapers,
for many of them will not help him to write ill) and to those modern
authors who are most praised for their style by the people who know
least about the matter. Words like "fictional" and "fictive" are
distinctly to be recommended, and there are epithets such as "weird,"
"strange," "wild," "intimate," and the rest, which blend pleasantly
with "all the time" for "always"; "back of" for "behind"; "belong
with" for "belong to"; "live like I do" for "as I do." The authors
who combine those charms are rare, but we can strive to be among

In short, he who would fail must avoid simplicity like a sunken reef,
and must earnestly seek either the commonplace or the bizarre, the
slipshod or the affected, the newfangled or the obsolete, the
flippant or the sepulchral. I need not specially recommend you to
write in "Wardour-street English," the sham archaic, a lingo never
spoken by mortal man, and composed of patches borrowed from authors
between Piers Plowman and Gabriel Harvey. A few literal translations
of Icelandic phrases may be thrown in; the result, as furniture-
dealers say, is a "made-up article."

On the subject of style another hint may be offered. Style may be
good in itself, but inappropriate to the subject. For example, style
which may be excellently adapted to a theological essay, may be but
ill-suited for a dialogue in a novel. There are subjects of which
the poet says

Ornari res ipsa vetat, contenta doceri.

The matter declines to be adorned, and is content with being clearly
stated. I do not know what would occur if the writer of the Money
Article in the Times treated his topic with reckless gaiety.
Probably that number of the journal in which the essay appeared would
have a large sale, but the author might achieve professional failure;
in the office. On the whole it may not be the wiser plan to write
about the Origins of Religion in the style which might suit a study
of the life of ballet dancers; the two MM. Halevy, the learned and
the popular, would make a blunder if they exchanged styles. Yet
Gibbon never denies himself a jest, and Montesquieu's Esprit des Lois
was called L'Esprit sur les Lois. M. Renan's Histoire d'Israel may
almost be called skittish. The French are more tolerant of those
excesses than the English. It is a digression, but he who would fail
can reach his end by not taking himself seriously. If he gives
himself no important airs, whether out of a freakish humour, or real
humility, depend upon it the public and the critics will take him at
something under his own estimate. On the other hand, by copying the
gravity of demeanour admired by Mr. Shandy in a celebrated parochial
animal, even a very dull person may succeed in winning no
inconsiderable reputation.

To return to style, and its appropriateness: all depends on the work
in hand, and the audience addressed. Thus, in his valuable Essay on
Style, Mr. Pater says, with perfect truth: {3}

"The otiose, the facile, surplusage: why are these abhorrent to the
true literary artist, except because, in literary as in all other
arts, structure is all important, felt or painfully missed,
everywhere?--that architectural conception of work, which foresees
the end in the beginning, and never loses sight of it, and in every
part is conscious of all the rest, till the last sentence does but,
with undiminished vigour, unfold and justify the first--a condition
of literary art, which, in contradistinction to another quality of
the artist himself, to be spoken of later, I shall call the necessity
of MIND in style."

These are words which the writer should have always present to his
memory, if he has something serious that he wants to say, or if he
wishes to express himself in the classic and perfect manner. But if
it is his fate merely to be obliged to say something, in the course
of his profession, or if he is bid to discourse for the pleasure of
readers in the Underground Railway, I fear he will often have to
forget Mr. Pater. It may not be literature, the writing of
causeries, of Roundabout Papers, of rambling articles "on a
broomstick," and yet again, it MAY be literature! "Parallel,
allusion, the allusive way generally, the flowers in the garden"--Mr.
Pater charges heavily against these. The true artist "knows the
narcotic force of these upon the negligent intelligence to which any
DIVERSION, literally, is welcome, any vagrant intruder, because one
can go wandering away with it from the immediate subject . . . In
truth all art does but consist in the removal of surplusage, from the
last finish of the gem engraver blowing away the last particle of
invisible dust, back to the earliest divination of the finished work
to be lying somewhere, according to Michel Angelo's fancy, in the
rough-hewn block of stone."

Excellent, but does this apply to every kind of literary art? What
would become of Montaigne if you blew away his allusions, and drove
him out of "the allusive way," where he gathers and binds so many
flowers from all the gardens and all the rose-hung lanes of
literature? Montaigne sets forth to write an Essay on Coaches. He
begins with a few remarks on seasickness in the common pig; some
notes on the Pont Neuf at Paris follow, and a theory of why tyrants
are detested by men whom they have obliged; a glance at Coaches is
then given, next a study of Montezuma's gardens, presently a brief
account of the Spanish cruelties in Mexico and Peru, last--retombons
a nos coches--he tells a tale of the Inca, and the devotion of his
Guard: Another for Hector!

The allusive style has its proper place, like another, if it is used
by the right man, and the concentrated and structural style has also
its higher province. It would not do to employ either style in the
wrong place. In a rambling discursive essay, for example, a mere
straying after the bird in the branches, or the thorn in the way, he
might not take the safest road who imitated Mr. Pater's style in what

"In this way, according to the well-known saying, 'The style is the
man,' complex or simple, in his individuality, his plenary sense of
what he really has to say, his sense of the world: all cautions
regarding style arising out of so many natural scruples as to the
medium through which alone he can expose that inward sense of things,
the purity of this medium, its laws or tricks of refraction: nothing
is to be left there which might give conveyance to any matter save
that." Clearly the author who has to write so that the man may read
who runs will fail if he wrests this manner from its proper place,
and uses it for casual articles: he will fail to hold the vagrom

Thus a great deal may be done by studying inappropriateness of style,
by adopting a style alien to our matter and to our audience. If we
"haver" discursively about serious, and difficult, and intricate
topics, we fail; and we fail if we write on happy, pleasant, and
popular topics in an abstruse and intent, and analytic style. We
fail, too, if in style we go outside our natural selves. "The style
is the man," and the man will be nothing, and nobody, if he tries for
an incongruous manner, not naturally his own, for example if Miss
Yonge were suddenly to emulate the manner of Lever, or if Mr. John
Morley were to strive to shine in the fashion of Uncle Remus, or if
Mr. Rider Haggard were to be allured into imitation by the example,
so admirable in itself, of the Master of Balliol. It is ourselves we
must try to improve, our attentiveness, our interest in life, our
seriousness of purpose, and then the style will improve with the
self. Or perhaps, to be perfectly frank, we shall thus convert
ourselves into prigs, throw ourselves out of our stride, lapse into
self- consciousness, lose all that is natural, naif, and instinctive
within us. Verily there are many dangers, and the paths to failure
are infinite.

So much for style, of which it may generally be said that you cannot
be too obscure, unnatural, involved, vulgar, slipshod, and
metaphorical. See to it that your metaphors are mixed, though,
perhaps, this attention is hardly needed. The free use of
parentheses, in which a reader gets lost, and of unintelligible
allusions, and of references to unread authors--the Kalevala and
Lycophron, and the Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius, is invaluable to
this end. So much for manner, and now for matter.

The young author generally writes because he wants to write, either
for money, from vanity, or in mere weariness of empty hours and
anxiety to astonish his relations. This is well, he who would fail
cannot begin better than by having nothing to say. The less you
observe, the less you reflect, the less you put yourself in the paths
of adventure and experience, the less you will have to say, and the
more impossible will it be to read your work. Never notice people's
manner, conduct, nor even dress, in real life. Walk through the
world with your eyes and ears closed, and embody the negative results
in a story or a poem. As to Poetry, with a fine instinct we
generally begin by writing verse, because verse is the last thing
that the public want to read. The young writer has usually read a
great deal of verse, however, and most of it bad. His favourite
authors are the bright lyrists who sing of broken hearts, wasted
lives, early deaths, disappointment, gloom. Without having even had
an unlucky flirtation, or without knowing what it is to lose a
favourite cat, the early author pours forth laments, just like the
laments he has been reading. He has too a favourite manner, the old
consumptive manner, about the hectic flush, the fatal rose on the
pallid cheek, about the ruined roof tree, the empty chair, the rest
in the village churchyard. This is now a little rococo and forlorn,
but failure may be assured by travelling in this direction. If you
are ambitious to disgust an editor at once, begin your poem with
"Only." In fact you may as well head the lyric "Only." {4}


Only a spark of an ember,
Only a leaf on the tree,
Only the days we remember,
Only the days without thee.
Only the flower that thou worest,
Only the book that we read,
Only that night in the forest,
Only a dream of the dead,
Only the troth that was broken,
Only the heart that is lonely,
Only the sigh and the token
That sob in the saying of Only!

In literature this is a certain way of failing, but I believe a
person might make a livelihood by writing verses like these--for
music. Another good way is to be very economical in your rhymes,
only two to the four lines, and regretfully vague. Thus:


In the slumber of the winter,
In the secret of the snow,
What is the voice that is crying
Out of the long ago?

When the accents of the children
Are silent on the stairs,
When the poor forgets his troubles,
And the rich forgets his cares.

What is the silent whisper
That echoes in the room,
When the days are full of darkness,
And the night is hushed in gloom?

'Tis the voice of the departed,
Who will never come again,
Who has left the weary tumult,
And the struggle and the pain. {5}

And my heart makes heavy answer,
To the voice that comes no more,
To the whisper that is welling
From the far off happy shore.

If you are not satisfied with these simple ways of not succeeding,
please try the Grosvenor Gallery style. Here the great point is to
make the rhyme arrive at the end of a very long word, you should also
be free with your alliterations.


When the sombre night is dumb,
Hushed the loud chrysanthemum,
Sister, sleep!
Sleep, the lissom lily saith,
Sleep, the poplar whispereth,
Soft and deep!

Filmy floats the wild woodbine,
Jonquil, jacinth, jessamine,
Float and flow.
Sleeps the water wild and wan,
As in far off Toltecan

See, upon the sun-dial,
Waves the midnight's misty pall,
Waves and wakes.
As, in tropic Timbuctoo,
Water beasts go plashing through
Lilied lakes!

Alliteration is a splendid source of failure in this sort of poetry,
and adjectives like lissom, filmy, weary, weird, strange, make, or
ought to make, the rejection of your manuscript a certainty. The
poem should, as a rule, seem to be addressed to an unknown person,
and should express regret and despair for circumstances in the past
with which the reader is totally unacquainted. Thus:


We met at length, as Souls that sit
At funeral feast, and taste of it,
And empty were the words we said,
As fits the converse of the dead,
For it is long ago, my dear,
Since we two met in living cheer,
Yea, we have long been ghosts, you know,
And alien ways we twain must go,
Nor shall we meet in Shadow Land,
Till Time's glass, empty of its sand,
Is filled up of Eternity.
Farewell--enough for once to die -
And far too much it is to dream,
And taste not the Lethaean stream,
But bear the pain of loves unwed
Even here, even here, among the dead!

That is a cheerful intelligible kind of melody, which is often
practised with satisfactory results. Every form of imitation
(imitating of course only the faults of a favourite writer) is to be

Imitation does a double service, it secures the failure of the
imitator and also aids that of the unlucky author who is imitated.
As soon as a new thing appears in literature, many people hurry off
to attempt something of the same sort. It may be a particular trait
and accent in poetry, and the public, weary of the mimicries, begin
to dislike the original.

"Most can grow the flowers now,
For all have got the seed;
And once again the people
Call it but a weed."

In fiction, if somebody brings in a curious kind of murder, or a
study of religious problems, or a treasure hunt, or what you will,
others imitate till the world is weary of murders, or theological
flirtations, or the search for buried specie, and the original
authors themselves will fail, unless they fish out something new, to
be vulgarised afresh. Therefore, imitation is distinctly to be urged
on the young author.

As a rule, his method is this, he reads very little, but all that he
reads is BAD. The feeblest articles in the weakliest magazines, the
very mildest and most conventional novels appear to be the only
studies of the majority. Apparently the would-be contributor says to
himself, or herself, "well, _I_ can do something almost on the level
of this or that maudlin and invertebrate novel." Then he
deliberately sits down to rival the most tame, dull, and illiterate
compositions that get into print. In this way bad authors become the
literary parents of worse authors. Nobody but a reader of MSS. knows
what myriads of fiction are written without one single new situation,
original character, or fresh thought. The most out-worn ideas:
sudden loss of fortune; struggles; faithlessness of First Lover;
noble conduct of Second Lover: frivolity of younger sister;
excellence of mother: naughtiness of one son, virtue of another,
these are habitually served up again and again. On the sprained
ankles, the mad bulls, the fires, and other simple devices for doing
without an introduction between hero and heroine I need not dwell.
The very youngest of us is acquainted with these expedients, which,
by this time of day, will spell failure.

The common novels of Governess life, the daughters and granddaughters
of Jane Eyre, still run riot among the rejected manuscripts. The
lively large family, all very untidy and humorous, all wearing each
other's boots and gloves, and making their dresses out of bedroom
curtains and marrying rich men, still rushes down the easy descent to
failure. The sceptical curate is at large, and is disbelieving in
everything except the virtues of the young woman who "has a history."
Mr. Swinburne hopes that one day the last unbelieving clergyman will
disappear in the embrace of the last immaculate Magdalen, as the
Princess and the Geni burn each other to nothingness, in the Arabian
Nights. On that happy day there will be one less of the roads
leading to failure. If the pair can carry with them the self-
sacrificing characters who take the blame of all the felonies that
they did not do, and the nice girl who is jilted by the poet, and
finds that the squire was the person whom she REALLY loved, so much
the better. If not only Monte Carlo, but the inevitable scene in the
Rooms there can be abolished; if the Riviera, and Italy can be
removed from the map of Europe as used by novelists, so much the
better. But failure will always be secured, while the huge majority
of authors do not aim high, but aim at being a little lower than the
last domestic drivel which came out in three volumes, or the last
analysis of the inmost self of some introspective young girl which
crossed the water from the States.

These are general counsels, and apply to the production of books.
But, when you have done your book, you may play a number of silly
tricks with your manuscript. I have already advised you to make only
one copy, a rough one, as that secures negligence in your work, and
also disgusts an editor or reader. It has another advantage, you may
lose your copy altogether, and, as you have not another, no failure
can be more complete. The best way of losing it, I think and the
safest, is to give it to somebody you know who has once met some man
or woman of letters.. This somebody must be instructed to ask that
busy and perhaps casual and untidy person to read your manuscript,
and "place" it, that is, induce some poor publisher or editor to pay
for and publish it. Now the man, or woman of letters, will use
violent language on receiving your clumsy brown paper parcel of
illegible wares, because he or she has no more to do with the matter
than the crossing sweeper. The MS. will either be put away so
carefully that it can never be found again, or will be left lying
about so that the housemaid may use it for her own domestic purposes,
like Betty Barnes, the cook of Mr. Warburton, who seems to have
burned several plays of Shakespeare.

The MS. in short will go where the old moons go.

And all dead days drift thither,
And all disastrous things.

Not only can you secure failure thus yourself, but you can so worry
and badger your luckless victim, that he too will be unable to write
well till he has forgotten you and your novel, and all the annoyance
and anxiety you have given him. Much may be done by asking him for
"introductions" to an editor or publisher. These gentry don't want
introductions, they want good books, and very seldom get them. If
you behave thus, the man whom you are boring will write to his

Dear Brown,

A wretched creature, who knows my great aunt, asks me to recommend
his rubbish to you. I send it by today's post, and I wish you joy of

This kind of introduction will do you excellent service in smoothing
the path to failure. You can arrive at similar results by sending
your MS. NOT to the editor of this or that magazine, but to some one
who, as you have been told by some nincompoop, is the editor, and who
is NOT. He MAY lose your book, or he may let it lie about for
months, or he may send it on at once to the real editor with his
bitter malison. The utmost possible vexation is thus inflicted on
every hand, and a prejudice is established against you which the
nature of your work is very unlikely to overcome. By all means bore
many literary strangers with correspondence, this will give them a
lively recollection of your name, and an intense desire to do you a
bad turn if opportunity arises. {6}

If your book does, in spite of all, get itself published, send it
with your compliments to critics and ask them for favourable reviews.
It is the publisher's business to send out books to the editors of
critical papers, but never mind THAT. Go on telling critics that you
know praise is only given by favour, that they are all more or less
venal and corrupt and members of the Something Club, add that YOU are
no member of a coterie nor clique, but that you hope an exception
will be made, and that your volume will be applauded on its merits.
You will thus have done what in you lies to secure silence from
reviewers, and to make them request that your story may be sent to
some other critic. This, again, gives trouble, and makes people
detest you and your performance, and contributes to the end which you
have steadily in view.

I do not think it is necessary to warn young lady novelists, who
possess beauty, wealth, and titles, against asking Reviewers to dine,
and treating them as kindly, almost, as the Fairy Paribanou treated
Prince Ahmed. They only act thus, I fear, in Mr. William Black's

Much may be done by re-writing your book on the proof sheets,
correcting everything there which you should have corrected in
manuscript. This is an expensive process, and will greatly diminish
your pecuniary gains, or rather will add to your publisher's bill,
for the odds are that you will have to publish at your own expense.
By the way, an author can make almost a certainty of disastrous
failure, by carrying to some small obscure publisher a work which has
been rejected by the best people in the trade. Their rejections all
but demonstrate that your book is worthless. If you think you are
likely to make a good thing by employing an obscure publisher, with
little or no capital, then, as some one in Thucydides remarks,
congratulating you on your simplicity, I do not envy your want of
common sense. Be very careful to enter into a perfectly preposterous
agreement. For example, accept "half profits," but forget to observe
that before these are reckoned, it is distinctly stated in your
"agreement" that the publisher is to pay HIMSELF some twenty per
cent. on the price of each copy sold before you get your share.

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. There are publishers, however, so inconsiderate
that they will not leave you even this consolation. Finding that the
book they bought cheap is really valuable, they will insist on
sharing the profits with the author, or on making him great presents
of money to which he has no legal claim. Some persons, some authors,
cannot fail if they would, so wayward is fortune, and such a Quixotic
idea of honesty have some middlemen of literature. But, of course,
you MAY light on a publisher who will not give you MORE than you
covenanted for, and then you can go about denouncing the whole
profession as a congregation of robbers and clerks of St. Nicholas.

The ways of failure are infinite, and of course are not nearly
exhausted. One good plan is never to be yourself when you write, to
put in nothing of your own temperament, manner, character--or to have
none, which does as well. Another favourite method is to offer the
wrong kind of article, to send to the Cornhill an essay on the
evolution of the Hittite syllabary, (for only one author could make
THAT popular;) or a sketch of cock fighting among the ancients to the
Monthly Record; or an essay on Ayahs in India to an American
magazine; or a biography of Washington or Lincoln to any English
magazine whatever. We have them every month in some American
periodicals, and our poor insular serials can get on without them:
"have no use for them."

It is a minor, though valuable scheme, to send poems on Christmas to
magazines about the beginning of December, because, in fact, the
editors have laid in their stock of that kind of thing earlier.
Always insist on SEEING an editor, instead of writing to him. There
is nothing he hates so much, unless you are very young and beautiful
indeed, when, perhaps, if you wish to fail you had better NOT pay him
a visit at the office. Even if you do, even if you were as fair as
the Golden Helen, he is not likely to put in your compositions if, as
is probable, they fall MUCH below the level of his magazine.

A good way of making yourself a dead failure is to go about accusing
successful people of plagiarising from books or articles of yours
which did not succeed, and, perhaps, were never published at all. By
encouraging this kind of vanity and spite you may entirely destroy
any small powers you once happened to possess, you will, besides,
become a person with a grievance, and, in the long run, will be
shunned even by your fellow failures. Again, you may plagiarise
yourself, if you can, it is not easy, but it is a safe way to fail if
you can manage it. No successful person, perhaps, was ever, in the
strict sense, a plagiarist, though charges of plagiary are always
brought against everybody, from Virgil to Milton, from Scott to
Moliere, who attains success. When you are accused of being a
plagiarist, and shewn up in double columns, you may be pretty sure
that all this counsel has been wasted on you, and that you have
failed to fail, after all. Otherwise nobody would envy and malign
you, and garble your book, and print quotations from it which you did
not write, all in the sacred cause of morality.

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

"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 she begins again, only further back, this time.

It is thus that the aunts of England may and do assist their nieces
to fail in literature. Many and many a morning do they waste, many a
promising fancy have they blighted, many a temper have they spoiled.

Sisters are rather more sympathetic: the favourite plan of the
brother is to say, "Now, Mary, read us your new chapter."

Mary reads it, and the critic exclaims, "Well, of all the awful Rot!
Now, why can't you do something like Bootles's Baby?"

Fathers never take any interest in the business at all: they do not
count. The sympathy of a mother may be reckoned on, but not her
judgement, for she is either wildly favourable, or, mistrusting her
own tendencies, is more diffident than need be. The most that
relations can do for the end before us is to worry, interrupt,
deride, and tease the literary member of the family. They seldom
fail in these duties, and not even success, as a rule, can persuade
them that there is anything in it but "luck."

Perhaps reviewing is not exactly a form of literature. But it has
this merit that people who review badly, not only fail themselves,
but help others to fail, by giving a bad idea of their works. You
will, of course, never read the books you review, and you will be
exhaustively ignorant of the subjects which they treat. But you can
always find fault with the TITLE of the story which comes into your
hands, a stupid reviewer never fails to do this. You can also copy
out as much of the preface as will fill your eighth of a column, and
add, that the performance is not equal to the promise. You must
never feel nor shew the faintest interest in the work reviewed, that
would be fatal. Never praise heartily, that is the sign of an
intelligence not mediocre. Be vague, colourless, and languid, this
deters readers from approaching the book. If you have glanced at it,
blame it for not being what it never professed to be; if it is a
treatise on Greek Prosody, censure the lack of humour; if it is a
volume of gay verses, lament the author's indifference to the sorrows
of the poor or the wrongs of the Armenians. If it has humour,
deplore its lack of thoughtfulness; if it is grave, carp at its lack
of gaiety. I have known a reviewer of half a dozen novels denounce
half a dozen KINDS of novels in the course of his two columns; the
romance of adventure, the domestic tale, the psychological analysis,
the theological story, the detective's story, the story of "Society,"
he blamed them all in general, and the books before him in
particular, also the historical novel. This can easily be done, by
dint of practice, after dipping into three or four pages of your
author. Many reviewers have special aversions, authors they detest.
Whatever they are criticising, novels, poems, plays, they begin by an
attack on their pet aversion, who has nothing to do with the matter
in hand. They cannot praise A, B, C, and D, without first assailing
E. It will generally be found that E is a popular author. But the
great virtue of a reviewer, who would be unreadable and make others
unread, is a languid ignorant lack of interest in all things, a habit
of regarding his work as a tedious task, to be scamped as rapidly and
stupidly as possible.

You might think that these qualities would displease the reviewer's
editor. Not at all, look at any column of short notices, and you
will occasionally find that the critic has anticipated my advice.
There is no topic in which the men who write about it are so little
interested as contemporary literature. Perhaps this is no matter to
marvel at. By the way, a capital plan is not to write your review
till the book has been out for two years. This is the favourite
dodge of the -, that distinguished journal.

If any one has kindly attended to this discourse, without desiring to
be a failure, he has only to turn the advice outside in. He has only
to be studious of the very best literature, observant, careful,
original, he has only to be himself and not an imitator, to aim at
excellence, and not be content with falling a little lower than
mediocrity. He needs but bestow the same attention on this art as
others give to the other arts and other professions. With these
efforts, and with a native and natural gift, which can never be
taught, never communicated, and with his mind set not on his reward,
but on excellence, on style, on matter, and even on the not wholly
unimportant virtue of vivacity, a man will succeed, or will deserve
success. First, of course, he will have to "find" himself, as the
French say, and if he does NOT find an ass, then, like Saul the son
of Kish, he may discover a kingdom. One success he can hardly miss,
the happiness of living, not with trash, but among good books, and
"the mighty minds of old." In an unpublished letter of Mr.
Thackeray's, written before he was famous, and a novelist, he says
how much he likes writing on historical subjects, and how he enjoys
historical research. THE WORK IS SO GENTLEMANLY, he remarks. Often
and often, after the daily dreadful lines, the bread and butter
winning lines on some contemporary folly or frivolity, does a man
take up some piece of work hopelessly unremunerative, foredoomed to
failure as far as money or fame go, some dealing with the classics of
the world, Homer or Aristotle, Lucian or Moliere. It is like a bath
after a day's toil, it is tonic and clean; and such studies, if not
necessary to success, are, at least, conducive to mental health and
self-respect in literature.

To the enormous majority of persons who risk themselves in
literature, not even the smallest measure of success can fall. They
had better take to some other profession as quickly as may be, they
are only making a sure thing of disappointment, only crowding the
narrow gates of fortune and fame. Yet there are others to whom
success, though easily within their reach, does not seem a thing to
be grasped at. Of two such, the pathetic story may be read, in the
Memoir of A Scotch Probationer, Mr. Thomas Davidson, who died young,
an unplaced Minister of the United Presbyterian Church, in 1869. He
died young, unaccepted by the world, unheard of, uncomplaining, soon
after writing his latest song on the first grey hairs of the lady
whom he loved. And she, Miss Alison Dunlop, died also, a year ago,
leaving a little work newly published, Anent Old Edinburgh, in which
is briefly told the story of her life. There can hardly be a true
tale more brave and honourable, for those two were eminently
qualified to shine, with a clear and modest radiance, in letters.
Both had a touch of poetry, Mr. Davidson left a few genuine poems,
both had humour, knowledge, patience, industry, and literary
conscientiousness. No success came to them, they did not even seek
it, though it was easily within the reach of their powers. Yet none
can call them failures, leaving, as they did, the fragrance of
honourable and uncomplaining lives, and such brief records of these
as to delight, and console and encourage us all. They bequeath to us
the spectacle of a real triumph far beyond the petty gains of money
or of applause, the spectacle of lives made happy by literature,
unvexed by notoriety, unfretted by envy. What we call success could
never have yielded them so much, for the ways of authorship are dusty
and stony, and the stones are only too handy for throwing at the few
that, deservedly or undeservedly, make a name, and therewith about
one-tenth of the wealth which is ungrudged to physicians, or
barristers, or stock-brokers, or dentists, or electricians. If
literature and occupation with letters were not its own reward, truly
they who seem to succeed might envy those who fail. It is not wealth
that they win, as fortunate men in other professions count wealth; it
is not rank nor fashion that come to their call nor come to call on
them. Their success is to be let dwell with their own fancies, or
with the imaginations of others far greater than themselves; their
success is this living in fantasy, a little remote from the hubbub
and the contests of the world. At the best they will be vexed by
curious eyes and idle tongues, at the best they will die not rich in
this world's goods, yet not unconsoled by the friendships which they
win among men and women whose faces they will never see. They may
well be content, and thrice content, with their lot, yet it is not a
lot which should provoke envy, nor be coveted by ambition.

It is not an easy goal to attain, as the crowd of aspirants dream,
nor is the reward luxurious when it is attained. A garland, usually
fading and not immortal, has to be run for, not without dust and


{1} As the writer has ceased to sift, editorially, the contributions
of the age, he does hope that authors will not instantly send him
their MSS. But if they do, after this warning, they will take the
most direct and certain road to the waste paper basket. No MSS. will
be returned, even when accompanied by postage stamps.

{2} I have made a rich selection of examples from the works of
living English and American authors. From the inextensive volumes of
an eminent and fastidious critic I have culled a dear phrase about an
oasis of style in "a desert of literary limpness." But it were
hardly courteous, and might be dangerous, to publish these exotic
blossoms of art.

{3} Appreciations, p. 18.

{4} It was the custom of Longinus, of the author of The Bathos, and
other old critics, to take their examples of how NOT to do it from
the works of famous writers, such as Sir Richard Blackmore and
Herodotus. It seems altogether safer and more courteous for an
author to supply his own Awful Examples. The Musical Rights in the
following Poems are reserved.

{5} Or, if you prefer the other rhyme, read: And the wilderness of

{6} It is a teachable public: since this lecture was delivered the
author has received many MSS. from people who said they had heard the
discourse, "and enjoyed it so much."


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