David Waller draws encouraging parallels between today’s turbulent book world and the Victorian fin de siècle.
Is the digital revolution in publishing a good or a bad thing for writers and readers? The arrival of ebooks and the Kindle and distribution by Amazon have led to turmoil in the book trade. For every self-published sensation à la Fifty Shades of Grey, there are dozens of tales of novelists or biographers who can’t get published at all.
As with all revolutions, it feels as though the changes we are living through are unprecedented. Civilisation seems to be coming to an end and, as William Butler Yeats put it, great art is beaten down. But look at the last great upheaval in book technology, and there are reasons to be cheerful. I’m referring not to the age of Gutenberg or Caxton, but to the last two decades of the 19th century – a time when the certainties of the Victorian literary world unravelled. Encouragingly for our own times, turbulence in the book world of the fin de siècle did not spell the end of literature, as many had feared. It led to rampant literary creativity and a flourishing of great writers, from Robert Louis Stevenson and Jerome K Jerome to Thomas Hardy, Henry James and Joseph Conrad. There are many, hitherto unacknowledged parallels between then and now.
The period 1880-1900 saw a trebling of the reading public at home and an incalculable increase overseas. At home, more people could read and write than ever before, as those educated at Board Schools under the 1870 Education Act came of age. Internationally, the expansion of the empire led to an extraordinary increase in the market for literature in English: Sir Walter Besant, a popular novelist of the day, estimated that the number of potential readers rose from 50,000 in 1830 to a (no doubt exaggerated) 120 million by the 1890s. The sheer number of novels published in England rose rapidly, from 380 a year in 1880, to 897 in 1890 and 1,315 in 1895. At the same time, there was a proliferation of new media, with the number of magazines and periodicals rising from about 1,800 in 1864 to nearly 5,000 by the time of Queen Victoria’s death in 1901.
For many, the most shocking change came in the way fiction was published. For most of the Victorian era, novels typically appeared in three volumes, coming in at about 900 pages and up to 200,000 words. Under this so-called triple-decker system, most people did not buy their books outright, they rented them from the circulating libraries, chiefly Mudie’s Select Library and WHSmith. The system operated a kind of retail price maintenance: books cost 31s 6d to buy (compared to a working class wage of 10-16s a week), and a lot less to rent by the volume. That’s how most people consumed their fiction. The purchasing power of the libraries guaranteed high prices for the publishers, while discouraging innovation in form or content.
Throughout the 1880s, the system came under attack from authors eager to be free of its constraints. George Moore, the Anglo-Irish novelist whose early novels were turned down by Mudie’s, denounced the fiction published by the libraries as “headless, limbless… pulseless, non-vertebrate”. In George Gissing’s New Grub Street, published in 1891, Jasper Milvain speaks for many authors of the time when he describes the system as a “triple headed monster, sucking the blood of English novelists”. Writers began to bypass the system, publishing shorter works in the newspapers and periodicals that proliferated at this time. Many of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories were first published in the middlebrow Strand Magazine. Authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson, H Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling found great success with short, one-volume novels. George Moore himself published cheap editions through Vizetelly, the scandalous publisher of Zola in translation.
Undermined on all sides, the libraries abandoned the system in 1894. This was a final capitulation to the pressures of the mass market – what a character called Whelpdale in New Grub Street patronisingly calls “the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board Schools… the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention”. He describes the mass of new readers as “quarter-educated” and incapable of reading more than four inches per article, two paragraphs per inch (perhaps a late Victorian version of Twitter?). He plans a new periodical, to be entitled Chit-Chat, which will to appeal to this sensation-hungry, impatient audience (and which Gissing probably modelled on the contemporary Titbits). The novel contains what Gissing calls a “multiplication of ephemerides” – at least a dozen periodicals, from the Will o’ the Wisp to Balance and English Girl, Young Lady’s Favouriteand the Shropshire Weekly Herald. There are surely some parallels with the booming blogosphere today, subject to similar derision from the highbrow but allowing great experimentation in form and content.
The period saw the flourishing of short stories, ghost stories, detective stories, boys’ adventure stories, sexually explicit stories, gothic horror stories, and stories designed to appeal to the “new woman”. These were new genres for new categories of reader. Novels themselves became shorter, one volume replacing three. If the three-decker was, quite literally, family reading – Mudie’s advertised that its novels were suitable to be read by the family as a whole, and they were often read aloud to the family group – single-volume novels implied a private, even sinful reading experience. “Sex and the single book became the order of the day,” comments the critic Elaine Showalter. Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray reads a “poisonous” and strange yellow-covered one-volume book, deriving a salacious thrill as “the sins of the world [… passed] in dumb show before him”.
Wilde denounced the influence of the mass public on artistic production. “A true artist takes no notice whatsoever of the public,” he wrote. “The public are to him non-existent.” This seems disingenuous from a man whose knowledge of public taste had been finely honed as editor of Woman’s Worldmagazine and who was on the brink of enduring popular success as a dramatist. Henry James, by contrast, wrote a manifesto defending highbrow literature and a number of laconic stories dealing with the literary marketplace. The central character in “The Next Time” (1895), for example, is Ralph Limbert, a novelist whose inclination is to turn his back on the market in the “age of trash triumphant”. His own commitment to high art contrasts with the market successes of Mrs Highmore, the fecund producer of “a little family, in sets of triplets” – voluminous and commercially successful triple-deckers. Limbert has a change of heart when he falls in love and needs money to get married. He decides that he must abandon his literary precepts and write for the market. He strives to produce work that is “the very worst he can do for the money… he’d be vulgar, he’d be atrocious, he’d be elaborately what he hadn’t been before”. Limbert’s tragedy is that no matter how hard he tries, he cannot write badly enough to appeal to the market. Instead he can’t stop himself writing a “merciless masterpiece”, a work of some small genius that has no popular appeal whatsoever.
Limbert’s career, from early idealism to failure and an early grave, has parallels with that of Edwin Reardon, a central character New Grub Street. While Reardon strives to create enduring literature, his friend Milvain has a tremendous facility for producing trash, a fact that he cynically recognises: “I have the special faculty of an extempore writer. Never in my life shall I do anything of solid literary value… but my path will be that of success.” For Milvain, “writing is a business”, untouched by “divine afflatus”. Reardon hankers for a world in which literature is “beyond the human sphere”, transcending the market, as he imagines was the case in an earlier age. His wife Amy is more down-to-earth. “Put aside all your strict ideas about what is worthy and what is unworthy and just act upon my advice,” she urges. If he can’t produce a three-decker, she commands him to write a short story “that’s likely to be popular”. But he is unable to churn out what would sell in the market.
The old system was not unlamented: Rudyard Kipling wrote a tongue-in-cheek elegy, imagining the triple-decker as a stately galleon, conveying readers to the Islands of the Blest. Some middlebrow writers lost the guaranteed market for their trashy novels and saw their careers tail off. Florence Marryat set up a School of Literary Art, and another formerly popular novelist started a cosmetics business. But others who had railed against the old system flourished, for example Rhoda Broughton, whose writing was well suited to a more concise format. And new writers such Jerome K Jerome and H Rider Haggard sold hundreds of thousands of copies of their slim, middlebrow volumes.
The parallels with the age of digital publishing are not exact, yet there are clear lessons for our own age. The end of traditional forms did not spell the end of good writing. On the contrary, the disruption led to experimentation and innovation. We may feel as though literary civilisation is coming to an end, but good writing and writers will prevail.