"Mr. Manning, why do you apprehend more danger from writing a book than from the preparation of magazine articles?"
"Simply because the peril is inherent in the nature of the
book you contemplate. Unless I totally misunderstand your views, you
indulge in the rather extraordinary belief that all works of fiction
should be eminently didactic, and inculcate not only sound morality but
scientific theories. Herein, permit me to say, you entirely misapprehend
the spirit of the age. People read novels merely to be amused, not
educated; and they will not tolerate technicalities and abstract
speculation in lieu of exciting plots and melodramatic dénouements.
Persons who desire to learn something of astronomy, geology, chemistry,
philology, etc., never think of finding what they require in the pages
of a novel, but apply at once to the text-books of the respective
sciences, and would as soon hunt for a lover's sentimental dialogue in
Newton's 'Principia,' or spicy small-talk in Kant's 'Critique,' as
expect an epitome of modern science in a work of fiction."
"But, sir, how many habitual novel-readers do you suppose
will educate themselves thoroughly from the text-books to which you
"A modicum, I grant you; yet it is equally true that those
who merely read to be amused will not digest the scientific dishes you
set before them. On the contrary, far from appreciating your charitable
efforts to elevate and broaden their range of vision, they will either
sneer at the author's pedantry, or skip over every passage that
necessitates thought to comprehend it, and rush on to the next page to
discover whether the heroine, Miss Imogene Arethusa Penolope Brown, wore
blue or pink tarlatan to her first ball, or whether on the day of her
elopement the indignant papa succeeded in preventing the consummation of
her felicity with Mr. Belshazzar Algernon Nebuchadnezzar Smith. I
neither magnify nor dwarf, I merely state a simple fact."
"But, Mr. Manning, do you not regard the writers of each age as the custodians of its tastes, as well as its morals?"
"Certainly not; they simply reflect and do not mould public
taste. Shakespeare, Hogarth, Rabelais, portrayed men and things as they
found them; not as they might, could, would, or should have been. Was
Sir Peter Lely responsible for the style of dress worn by court beauties
in the reign of Charles II.? He faithfully painted what passed before
him. Miss Earl, the objection I urge against the novel you are preparing
does not apply to magazine essays, where an author may concentrate all
the erudition he can obtain and ventilate it unchallenged; for review
writers now serve the public in much the same capacity that cupbearers
did royalty in ancient days; and they are expected to taste strong
liquors as well as sweet cordials and sour light wines. Moreover, a
certain haze of sanctity envelopes the precints of 'Maga,' whence the
incognito 'we' thunders with oracular power; for, nowithstanding the
rapid annihilation of all classic faith in modern times which permits
the conversion of Virgil's Avernus into a model oysterfarm, the
credulous public fondly cling to the myth that editorial sanctums alone
possess the sacred tripod of Delphi. Curiosity is the best stimulant for
public interest, and it has become exceedingly difficult to conceal the
authorship of a book, while that of magazine articles can readily be
disguised. I repeat, the world of novel-readers constitute a huge
hippodrome, where, if you can succeed in amusing your spectators or make
them gasp in amazement at your rhetorical legerdemain, they will
applaud vociferously, and pet you, as they would a graceful danseuse,
or a dexterous acrobat, or a daring equestrian; but if you attempt to
educate or lecture them, you will either declaim to empty benches or be
hissed down. They expect you to help them kill time not improve it."
"Sir, is it not nobler to struggle against than to float ignominiously with the tide of degenerate opinion?"
"That depends altogether on the earnestness of your
desire for martyrdom by drowning. I have seen stronger swimmers than you
go down, after desperate efforts to keep their heads above water."