“Et nous jongleurs inutiles,
frivoles joueurs de luth!”. .
. Useless jugglers, frivolous players on the
lute! Must we so describe ourselves, we, the
producers, season by season, of so many hundreds of
“remarkable” works of fiction? for
though, when we take up the remarkable works of our
fellows, we “really cannot read them!”
the Press and the advertisements of our publishers
tell us that they are “remarkable.”
A story goes that once in the twilight
undergrowth of a forest of nut-bearing trees a number
of little purblind creatures wandered, singing for
nuts. On some of these purblind creatures the
nuts fell heavy and full, extremely indigestible,
and were quickly swallowed; on others they fell light,
and contained nothing, because the kernel had already
been eaten up above, and these light and kernel-less
nuts were accompanied by sibilations or laughter.
On others again no nuts at all, empty or full, came
down. But nuts or no nuts, full nuts or empty
nuts, the purblind creatures below went on wandering
and singing. A traveller one day stopped one
of these creatures whose voice was peculiarly disagreeable,
and asked “Why do you sing like this? Is
it for pleasure that you do it, or for pain?
What do you get out of it? Is it for the sake
of those up there? Is it for your own sake for
the sake of your family for whose sake?
Do you think your songs worth listening to?
The creature scratched itself, and sang the louder.
“Ah! Cacoethes! I pity, but do not
blame you,” said the traveller.
He left the creature, and presently
came to another which sang a squeaky treble song.
It wandered round in a ring under a grove of stunted
trees, and the traveller noticed that it never went
out of that grove.
“Is it really necessary,” he said, “for
you to express yourself thus?”
And as he spoke showers of tiny hard
nuts came down on the little creature, who ate them
greedily. The traveller opened one; it was extremely
small and tasted of dry rot.
“Why, at all events,”
he said, “need you stay under these trees? the
nuts are not good here.”
But for answer the little creature
ran round and round, and round and round.
“I suppose,” said the
traveller, “small bad nuts are better than no
bread; if you went out of this grove you would starve?”
The purblind little creature shrieked.
The traveller took the sound for affirmation, and
passed on. He came to a third little creature
who, under a tall tree, was singing very loudly indeed,
while all around was a great silence, broken only
by sounds like the snuffling of small noses.
The creature stopped singing as the traveller came
up, and at once a storm of huge nuts came down; the
traveller found them sweetish and very oily.
“Why,” he said to the
creature, “did you sing so loud? You cannot
eat all these nuts. You really do sing louder
than seems necessary; come, answer me!”
But the purblind little creature began
to sing again at the top of its voice, and the noise
of the snuffling of small noses became so great that
the traveller hastened away. He passed many other
purblind little creatures in the twilight of this
forest, till at last he came to one that looked even
blinder than the rest, but whose song was sweet and
low and clear, breaking a perfect stillness; and the
traveller sat down to listen. For a long time
he listened to that song without noticing that not
a nut was falling. But suddenly he heard a faint
rustle and three little oval nuts lay on the ground.
The traveller cracked one of them.
It was of delicate flavour. He looked at the
little creature standing with its face raised, and
“Tell me, little blind creature,
whose song is so charming, where did you learn to
The little creature turned its head
a trifle to one side as though listening for the fall
“Ah, indeed!” said the
traveller: “You, whose voice is so clear,
is this all you get to eat?”
The little blind creature smiled . . . .
It is a twilight forest in which we
writers of fiction wander, and once in a way, though
all this has been said before, we may as well remind
ourselves and others why the light is so dim; why there
is so much bad and false fiction; why the demand for
it is so great. Living in a world where demand
creates supply, we writers of fiction furnish the exception
to this rule. For, consider how, as a class,
we come into existence. Unlike the followers
of any other occupation, nothing whatever compels
any one of us to serve an apprenticeship. We
go to no school, have to pass no examination, attain
no standard, receive no diploma. We need not
study that which should be studied; we are at liberty
to flood our minds with all that should not be studied.
Like mushrooms, in a single sight we spring up a
pen in our hands, very little in our brains, and who-knows-what
in our hearts!
Few of us sit down in cold blood to
write our first stories; we have something in us that
we feel we must express. This is the beginning
of the vicious circle. Our first books often
have some thing in them. We are sincere in trying
to express that something. It is true we cannot
express it, not having learnt how, but its ghost haunts
the pages the ghost of real experience and real life just
enough to attract the untrained intelligence, just
enough to make a generous Press remark: “This
shows promise.” We have tasted blood, we
pant for more. Those of us who had a carking
occupation hasten to throw it aside, those who had
no occupation have now found one; some few of us keep
both the old occupation and the new. Whichever
of these courses we pursue, the hurry with which we
pursue it undoes us. For, often we have only that
one book in us, which we did not know how to write,
and having expressed that which we have felt, we are
driven in our second, our third, our fourth, to warm
up variations, like those dressed remains of last night’s
dinner which are served for lunch; or to spin from
our usually commonplace imaginations thin extravagances
which those who do not try to think for themselves
are ever ready to accept as full of inspiration and
vitality. Anything for a book, we say anything
for a book!
From time immemorial we have acted
in this immoral manner, till we have accustomed the
Press and Public to expect it. From time immemorial
we have allowed ourselves to be driven by those powerful
drivers, Bread, and Praise, and cared little for the
quality of either. Sensibly, or insensibly,
we tune our songs to earn the nuts of our twilight
forest. We tune them, not to the key of:
“Is it good?” but to the key of: “Will
it pay?” and at each tuning the nuts fall fast!
It is all so natural. How can we help it, seeing
that we are undisciplined and standardless, seeing
that we started without the backbone that schooling
gives? Here and there among us is a genius,
here and there a man of exceptional stability who
trains himself in spite of all the forces working for
his destruction. But those who do not publish
until they can express, and do not express until they
have something worth expressing, are so rare that
they can be counted on the fingers of three or perhaps
four hands; mercifully, we all or nearly
all believe ourselves of that company.
It is the fashion to say that the
public will have what it wants. Certainly the
Public will have what it wants if what it wants is
given to the Public. If what it now wants were
suddenly withdrawn, the Public, the big Public, would
by an obvious natural law take the lowest of what
remained; if that again were withdrawn, it would take
the next lowest, until by degrees it took a relatively
good article. The Public, the big Public, is
a mechanical and helpless consumer at the mercy of
what is supplied to it, and this must ever be so.
The Public then is not to blame for the supply of
bad, false fiction. The Press is not to blame,
for the Press, like the Public, must take what is set
before it; their Critics, for the most part, like
ourselves have been to no school, passed no test of
fitness, received no certificate; they cannot lead
us, it is we who lead them, for without the Critics
we could live but without us the Critics would die.
We cannot, therefore, blame the Press. Nor is
the Publisher to blame; for the Publisher will publish
what is set before him. It is true that if he
published no books on commission he would deserve
the praise of the State, but it is quite unreasonable
for us to expect him to deserve the praise of the
State, since it is we who supply him with these books
and incite him to publish them. We cannot, therefore,
lay the blame on the Publisher.
We must lay the blame where it clearly
should be laid, on ourselves. We ourselves create
the demand for bad and false fiction. Very many
of us have private means; for such there is no excuse.
Very many of us have none; for such, once started
on this journey of fiction, there is much, often tragic,
excuse the less reason then for not having
trained ourselves before setting out on our way.
There is no getting out of it; the fault is ours.
If we will not put ourselves to school when we are
young; if we must rush into print before we can spell;
if we will not repress our natural desires and walk
before we run; if we will not learn at least what
not to do we shall go on wandering through
the forest, singing our foolish songs.
And since we cannot train ourselves
except by writing, let us write, and burn what we
write; then shall we soon stop writing, or produce
what we need not burn!
For, as things are now, without compass,
without map, we set out into the twilight forest of
fiction; without path, without track and
we never emerge.
Yes, with the French writer, we must say:
“Et nous jongleurs inutiles,
frivoles joueurs de luth!” .
. . 1906.