Frank Confessions Of A Publisher’s Reader by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

[Denis Dulcet, brother of the well-known poet Dunraven Dulcet and the extremely well-known literary agent Dove Dulcet, was for many years the head reader for a large publishing house. It was my good fortune to know him intimately, and when he could be severed from his innumerable manuscripts, which accompanied him everywhere, even in bed, he was very good company. His premature death from reader’s cramp and mental hernia was a sad loss to the world of polite letters. Thousands of mediocre books would have been loaded upon the public but for his incisive and unerring judgment. When he lay on his deathbed, surrounded by half-read MSS., he sent for me, and with an air of extreme solemnity laid a packet in my hand. It contained the following confession, and it was his last wish that it should be published without alteration. I include it here in memory of my very dear friend.]

In my youth I was wont to forecast various occupations for myself. Engine driver, tugboat captain, actor, statesman, and wild animal trainer–such were the visions with which I put myself to sleep. Never did the merry life of a manuscript reader swim into my ken. But here I am, buried elbow deep in the literary output of a commercial democracy. My only excuse for setting down these paragraphs is the hope that other more worthy members of the ancient and honorable craft may be induced to speak out in meeting. In these days when every type of man is interviewed, his modes of thinking conned and commented upon, why not a symposium of manuscript readers? Also I realized the other day, while reading a manuscript by Harold Bell Wright, that my powers are failing. My old trouble is gaining on me, and I may not be long for this world. Before I go to face the greatest of all Rejection Slips, I want to utter my message without fear or favour.

As a class, publishers’ readers are not vocal. They spend their days and nights assiduously (in the literal sense) bent over mediocre stuff, poking and poring in the unending hope of finding something rich and strange. A gradual stultitia seizes them. They take to drink; they beat their wives; they despair of literature. Worst, and most preposterous, they one and all nourish secret hopes of successful authorship. You might think that the interminable flow of turgid blockish fiction that passes beneath their weary eyes would justly sicken them of the abominable gymnastic of writing. But no: the venom is in the blood.

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Great men have graced the job–and got out of it as soon as possible. George Meredith was a reader once; so was Frank Norris; also E.V. Lucas and Gilbert Chesterton. One of the latter’s comments on a manuscript is still preserved. Writing of a novel by a lady who was the author of many unpublished stories, all marked by perseverance rather than talent, he said, “Age cannot wither nor custom stale her infinite lack of variety.” But alas, we hear too little of these gentlemen in their capacity as publishers’ pursuivants. Patrolling the porches of literature, why did they not bequeath us some pandect of their experience, some rich garniture of commentary on the adventures that befell? But they, and younger men such as Coningsby Dawson and Sinclair Lewis, have gone on into the sunny hayfields of popular authorship and said nothing.

But these brilliant swallow-tailed migrants are not typical. Your true specimen of manuscript reader is the faithful old percheron who is content to go on, year after year, sorting over the literary pemmican that comes before him, inexhaustible in his love for the delicacies of good writing, happy if once or twice a twelve-month he chance upon some winged thing. He is not the pettifogging pilgarlic of popular conception: he is a devoted servant of letters, willing to take his thirty or forty dollars a week, willing to suffer the peine forte et dure of his profession in the knowledge of honest duty done, writing terse and marrowy little essays on manuscripts, which are buried in the publishers’ files. This man is an honour to the profession, and I believe there are many such. Certainly there are many who sigh wistfully when they must lay aside some cherished writing of their own to devote an evening to illiterate twaddle. Five book manuscripts a day, thirty a week, close to fifteen hundred a year–that is a fair showing for the head reader of a large publishing house.

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One can hardly blame him if he sometimes grow skeptic or acid about the profession of letters. Of each hundred manuscripts turned in there will rarely be more than three or four that merit any serious consideration; only about one in a hundred will be acceptable for publication. And the others–alas that human beings should have invented ink to steal away their brains! “Only a Lady Barber” is the title of a novel in manuscript which I read the other day. Written in the most atrocious dialect, it betrayed an ignorance of composition that would have been discreditable to a polyp. It described the experiences of a female tonsor somewhere in Idaho, and closed with her Machiavellian manoeuvres to entice into her shaving chair a man who had bilked her, so that she might slice his ear. No need to harrow you with more of the same kind. I read almost a score every week. Often I think of a poem which was submitted to me once, containing this immortal couplet:

She damped a pen in the ooze of her brain and wrote a verse on the air,
A verse that had shone on the disc of the sun, had she chosen to set it there.

Let me beg you, my dears, leave the pen undamped unless your cerebral ooze really has something to impart. And then, once a year or so, when one is thinking that the hooves of Pegasus have turned into pigs’ trotters, comes some Joseph Conrad, some Walter de la Mare, some Rupert Brooke or Pearsall Smith, to restore one’s sanity.

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Or else–what is indeed more frequent–the reader’s fainting spirits are repaired not by the excellence of the manuscript before him, but by its absolute literary nonentity, a kind of intellectual Absolute Zero. Lack of merit may be so complete, so grotesque, that the composition affords to the sophistic eye a high order of comedy. A lady submits a poem in many cantos, beginning

Our heart is but a bundle of muscle
In which our passions tumble and tussle.

Another lady begins her novel with the following psychanalysis:

“Thus doth the ever-changing course of things run a perpetual circle.” … She read the phrase and then reflected, the cause being a continued prognostication, beginning and ending as it had done the day before, to-morrow and forever, maybe, of her own ailment, a paradoxical malady, being nothing more nor less than a pronounced case of malnutrition of the soul, a broken heart-cord, aggravated by a total collapse of that portion of the mentalities which had been bolstered up by undue pride, fallacious arguments, modern foibles and follies peculiar to the human species, both male and female, under favorable social conditions, found in provincial towns as well as in large cities and fashionable watering places.

But as a fitting anodyne to this regrettable case of soul malnutrition, let me append a description of a robuster female, taken verbatim from a manuscript (penned by masculine hand) which became a by-word in one publisher’s office.

She was a beautiful young lady. She was a medium, sized, elegant figure, wearing a neatly-fitted travelling dress of black alpaca. Her raven-black hair, copious both in length and volume and figured like a deep river, rippled by the wind, was parted in the centre and combed smoothly down, ornamenting her pink temples with a flowing tracery that passed round to its modillion windings on a graceful crown. Her mouth was set with pearls adorned with elastic rubies and tuned with minstrel lays, while her nose gracefully concealed its own umbrage, and her eyes imparted a radiant glow to the azure of the sky. Jewels of plain gold were about her ears and her tapering strawberry hands, and a golden chain, attached to a time-keeper of the same material, sparkled on an elegantly-rounded bosom that was destined to be pushed forward by sighs.

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Let it not be thought that only the gracious sex can inspire such plenitude of meticulous portraiture! Here is a description of the hero in a novel by a man which appeared on my desk recently:

For some time past there had been appearing at the home of Sarah Ellenton, a man not over fifty years of age, well groomed and of the appearances of being on good terms with prosperity in many phases. His complexion was reddish. His hazel eyes deepset and close together were small and shifting. His nose ran down to a point in many lines, and from the point back to where it joined above his lip, the course was seen to swerve slightly to one side. His upper lip assumed almost any form and at all times. His mouth ran across his face in a thin line, curved by waves according to the smiles and expressions he employed. Below those features was a chin of fine proportions, showing nothing to require study, but in his jaw hinges there was a device that worked splendidly, when he wished to show unction and charity, by sending out his chin on such occasions in the kindest advances one would wish to see.

It was not long before Sarah became Mrs. John R. Quinley.

I hear that the authors are going to unionize themselves and join the A.F. of L. The word “author” carries no sanctity with me: I have read too many of them. If their forming a trade union will better the output of American literature I am keen for it. I know that the professional reader has a jaundiced eye; insensibly he acquires a parallax which distorts his vision. Reading incessantly, now fiction, now history, poetry, essays, philosophy, science, exegetics, and what not, he becomes a kind of pantechnicon of slovenly knowledge; a knower of thousands of things that aren’t so. Every crank’s whim, every cretin’s philosophy, is fired at him first of all. Every six months comes in the inevitable treatise on the fourth dimension or on making gold from sea-water, or on using moonlight to run dynamos, or on Pope Joan or Prester John. And with it all he must retain his simple-hearted faith in the great art of writing and in the beneficence of Gutenberg.

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Manuscript readers need a trade union far worse than authors. There is all too little clannishness among us. We who are the helpless target for the slings and arrows of every writer who chooses to put pen on foolscap–might we not meet now and then for the humour of exchanging anecdotes? No class of beings is more in need of the consolations of intercourse. Perpend, brothers! Let us order a tierce of malmsey and talk it over! Perchance, too, a trade union among readers might be of substantial advantage. Is it not sad that a man should read manuscripts all the sweet years of his maturity, and be paid forty dollars a week? Let us make sixty the minimum–or let there be a pogrom among the authors!

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