From 'Letters to a young Writer IV' by William Robertson Nicoll in ‘The Bookman’ April 1894.
. . . Could I get you a little reviewing to do? Would the Tomahawk print anything in that way if you sent it ? You have never done anything of the kind, but it seems to be a way literary persons have of beginning their career, and you wouldn't mind trying your hand at it. You have nothing of your own ripe in your head just now, so you may as well concern yourself with other people's things.
Well, about the Tomahawk printing your first attempts I am doubtful, but if you stick to your ambitions you’ll probably have to enter journalism by one or other of its doors to earn your bread and butter while your great works are in the making, so it is none too soon to learn a bit of the trade. And in journalism reviewing comes handiest to anyone of a bookish turn. At the same time criticism is a work for which young untrained writers are highly unsuited, but this again does not prevent my advising early and constant practice in it to all who are ambitious to excel and succeed in literature, but who have not as yet been manifestly called to it. One of the most startling facts regarding the shoals of young writers’ MSS. Which pass through my hands is not their native want of ability, but the evidence they show of indifference to literature. Their contentment with poor models is surprising. Perhaps the writers have been too much at school, and have had little time. At all events, the fact remains so; and reviewing at least sends a reviewer to books. Ideally, reading may be the worst of all preparations for the career of a literary creator; the sky of heaven, the human heart, and human actions should perhaps give all the early experience needful. But I think the history of authors, even great ones, would show that as many have been sent to the closer study of nature and humanity by books, as by the observation of humanity and nature to literature. And if reading does not give the artist his impulse, at least it teaches him his craft.
The reviewer is not born but made. Of course, he must have certain natural gifts, chiefly moral, but these were not exclusively designed by Providence for his calling. It is not altogether a glorious career this; its records have been stained many times with blunders, incapacity, and injustice. They hide, too, a mass of excellent and forgotten work. But, inglorious as it may be, the work, in the present state of things, is in demand by publishers, by authors, perhaps even by readers. It is a way of eking out a more or less honest livelihood, and it is about as good a literary exercise as any young writer could be led to.
It has a past, even among press-hacks, by no means without honour. Men of genius have used it as a way of interpreting themselves as well as the author they set out to write on. It has high traditions as well as ignoble ones, and though it is not a career flattering to the vanity, it is today an eminently respectable one. A little log-rolling and much inaccuracy are nearly the only stains on its present reputation in England. But as there is the higher, so there is, in a literary sense, the lower criticism, that which , according to common belief, is the work of the office-boy. And to save you from this office-boy kind of ‘criticism’ I have suggested some preliminary practice, which many journalists will pooh-pooh, as something impossible and altogether needless. I would only remind such that Herbert Spencer’s ‘Ethics’ once got into the hands of a the wrong man of a newspaper staff, who dismissed it in a line or two, urgin the obscure author to choose a subject more suited to his abilities. This is reported to be one of the few jokes Mr. Spencer ever really enjoyed. Then there is the criticism which an editor finds useful for filling space, which offends people as little – unless they be particularly impatient of stupidity – as it informs or stimulates. It repeats the commonplaces of the world without a blush, and would serve up the multiplication tables if it could only manage to vary the phraseology. Hazlitt knew its author intimately, in social intercourse as well as in the press. ‘’The following list of his opinions may be relied upon: - it is pretty certain that before you have been in the room with him ten minutes he will give you to understand that Shakespeare was a great but irregular genius. Again, he thinks it a question whether any one of his plays, if brought out now, for the first time, would succeed… He wonders that the author of Junius was never found out… He thinks there has been a great improvement in the morals of the higher classes since the reign of Charles II.” And so on. Our stock phrases and stale dicta are other nowadays, but the spirit of the commonplace is always the same. Then there is the review of the book that has never been read, which is generally full of vaguely and guardedly complimentary adjectives, an exercise this not without practice in mental dexterity and in the art of saying nothing gracefully, and guarding your reputation for judgement, but not one likely to commend itself to young writers whose imagination and ambition will instinctively put them in the wronged and disappointed author’s place.
What I mean by training for reviewing is little more than this. While you have leisure, pay the homage of agreement or disagreement with the books that interest you, without a thought whether your manuscript is to be seen by other eyes than your own. Many a one has done this kind of thing in the leisurely days of his youth who never published a line of literary criticism. It matured in his mind and made him into a reader, which today is a much rarer thing than a writer. Even a young literary aspirant should have a past behind him, and did it consist in an acquired habit of literary judgement it would be valuable capital.
There is a style of criticism in vogue just now, particularly attractive to young writers, because it has two fascinating qualities: it is difficult of achievement, and it looks very knowing. Criticism generally resolves itself, in the end, into like and dislike, but these two are ordinary supported by reasons based on laws of style and taste which represent a great weight of tested opinion. But so-called impressionist criticism, in stating its likes and dislikes, omits the reasons, trusting entirely to moods. Now, criticism where the personal equation is large is always interesting and may be valuable. But to be valuable it demands a better stocked mind and memory, a wider experience and tolerance , than most young people generally possess. It presupposes too, judgement that has been in work so long or that is naturally so quick that its motions are almost unconscious and automatic.
The straightforward descriptive style is best of all for beginners, especially if the exercise be looked at with regard to its chief use, to make good readers. Find accurately the purpose of your book, if it has one, or the situation, or point of view, if it is a work of art. Can it be fairly and not too remotely compared with any other? If so, wherein are the two different? Is it to be regarded as an interesting narrative, or as a contribution to information, or as literature? Illustrate your statements by the aptest quotations you can find. They may sound very puerile, these directions, but hints against slipshod work are not often superfluous. Choose by preference books that are not new. Find out the pith and marrow for instance, of ‘Esmond’ or ‘Emma’, ‘Cinq Mars’ or ‘Les Trois Mousquetaires,’ of ‘The Essay in Criticism’ or ‘The Prelude,’ of ‘The Rivals, ‘ or ‘Edward II’ or Burke’s ‘Reflections,’ or Walton’s Lives or Cowper’s Letters – to give a mere haphazard selection.
The argumentative method can be your next step. Here your account of the contents of your book will be stopped every now and again to notice the strong or weak points, the novelties, the superfluities, or the absurdities. Examine, vindicate, and judge; only know something of what you are talking about. Learn to handle reference books skilfully, and to find your place in whatever library is at your disposal. Attack, but hit even a dead author fairly. Be as satirical as you like, when you feel assured you understand. You will be all the bolder that you are writing for yourself and not for a cold-blooded editor, and boldness is a good habit to begin with. But even at this stage, it is well to become used to being generous to a writer who is antipathetic to you.
Side by side with such practice, in this your time of leisure, should run some study of the best criticism, best in style, or in sanity, or in the work put into it. Read Macaulay, whose reputation is for the present a little undeservedly obscured, and recognise the mass of reading and reference he had ready for every review he wrote. Read Lamb, and see how gracefully and gently he carries his weight of out of the way learning. Read Hazlitt, and learn how the criticism of other people’s thoughts may be a vehicle of all that is most brilliant and original in a critic’s own mind. Read Lowell, and catch some of his fervour for the great literature of the world. Read Carlyle, and feel the heat of his moral fervour and understand all he demanded from books. Read Sainte-Beuve and Taine, for you miss a great chance of literary education if you don’t know French. I have named no living writers, it is not out of disparagement to the criticism of today, but because it is well to emphasize the fact that wisdom was not born this morning.
And when you have done this, and your editor gives you a chance, it may be to pronounce judgement on a worthless novel, or to summarise the merits of some work that has won your sympathies in ten brief lines. Such is the discipline journalism sometimes provides for her most high-souled helpers, but you will deserve to be a hack if you think your previous studies and your ambitious attempts were wasted.
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