“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? Answer!”
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 said:
“Tell me, little blind creature, whose song is so charming, where did you learn to sing?”
The little creature turned its head a trifle to one side as though listening for the fall of nuts.
“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!” . . .
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50