Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Demon Doubt

Undoubtedly my obsessive compulsive side has been among the greatest hindrances to my creativity. Some time ago I came to the conclusion that for the foreseeable future, and perhaps for the remainder of my life, I may never write a "major" work. This was actually a liberating thought for once. This was reinforced by an essay I read by Samuel Johnson. It was the first number of the Rambler, in which he addresses the reader and asks that he be patient with him. If he is not pleasing, at least he will not take much of the reader's time or, sentiments to that effect. He is more detailed about the benefits of the short form than I allude to above.
Similar sentiments struck me with joy while reading a piece by Alexander Smith. It will be necessary to give a lengthy extract as it is too good to quote only in part:

"It is frequently said that periodical writing fritters away a man’s intellectual energy; that, instead of concentrating himself on some congenial task, devoting a whole lifetime to it, and leaving it as a permanent possession of the race, a man is tempted to write hastily, and without sufficient meditation; that, in fact, we have articles now, more or less brilliant, whereas, under different circumstances, we might have had books. All this kind of conjecture is exceedingly unprofitable. Doubtless, under different circumstances, the results of a man’s working would have been different more or less; but it does not of necessity follow that the results would have been more valuable. A man’s power in literature, as in everything else, is best measured by his accomplishment, just as his stature is best measured by his coffin. The man who can beat his fellows in a ten-mile race, is likely to maintain his superiority in a race for a shorter distance. It is a mistake to suppose that a man’s largest work, or the work on which he has expended the greatest labour, is on that account his best. Literary history is full of instances to the contrary. When mental powers are equal, that is surest of immortality which occupies the least space; scattered forces are then concentrated, like garden roses gathered into one bouquet, or English beauty in the boxes at the opera. Leisure and life-long devotion to a task have often resulted in tediousness. Large works are often too heavy for posterity to carry. We have too many “Canterbury Tales.” The “Faery Queen” would be more frequently read if it consisted of only one book, and Spenser’s fame would stand quite as high as it does. Milton’s poetical genius is as apparent in “Comus” and “Lycidas” as in his great Epic, which most people have thought too long. Addison’s “Essay in Westminster Abbey” is more valuable than his tragedy. Macaulay’s Essays on Clive and Warren Hastings are as brilliant, powerful, and instructive as any single chapter of his “History”—with the additional advantage that they can be read at a sitting. Certain readers have been found to admire Wordsworth’s “We are Seven” more than the “Excursion.” Coleridge talked of spending fifteen years on the construction of a great poem; had he done so, it is doubtful whether his reader would have preferred it to the “Ancient Mariner.” From all this, it may be inferred that, if writers, instead of “frittering themselves away” in periodicals, had devoted themselves to the production of important works, the world would not have been much the wiser, and their reputations not one whit higher. Besides, there are many men more brilliant than profound—who have more √©lan than persistence—who gain their victories, like the Zouaves, by a rapid dash;—and these do their best in periodicals. These the immediate presence of the reader excites, as the audience the orator, the crowded pit the actor. Jerrold sparkles like a fire-fly through the tropic night; Hood, in that tragic subject which his serious fancy loved, emits, like the glow-worm a melancholy ray. But they could not shine for any continuous period, and had the wisdom not to attempt it. Are they to blame that they did not write long books to prove themselves dull fellows? It is of no use to cry out against the present state of things in literature. The magazines are here, and they have been produced by a great variety of causes. They demand certain kinds of literary ware; but whether the wares are valuable or the reverse, depends entirely upon the various workmen. It is to be hoped, if magazine writers possess a specialty, that they will stick to their specialty, and work it out faithfully—that no one will go out of his way, like Mr Dickens, when he wrote “The Child’s History of England,” or Mr Ruskin, when he addressed himself to the discussion of questions in political economy.
To the young writer, the magazine or review has distinct advantages. In many instances he can serve in the house of a literary noble, as the squire in the fourteenth century served in the house and under the eye of the territorial noble. He may model himself on an excellent pattern, and receive knighthood from his master as the reward of good conduct. If otherwise circumstanced,—if, following no special banner, he writes under the cover of the anonymous, and is unsuccessful,—he may retire without being put to public shame. In the arena of the magazines he can try his strength, pit himself against his fellows, find out his intellectual weight and power, gradually acquire confidence in himself, or arrive at the knowledge of his weakness—a result not less valuable if more rarely attained. If he is overthrown in the lists, no one but himself is the worse; if he distinguishes himself, it is a little unreasonable to expect him to keep his visor down when roses are showering upon him from applauding balconies. A man eminently successful in the magazines may fairly be forgiven for rushing to a reprint. Actors who make a hit at Drury Lane, almost immediately make a tour of the provinces. A reprint is to the author what a provincial tour is to the actor. If he is an amusing writer, people welcome him in his new shape with the gratitude which people always entertain for those who have amused them; if he is a great writer, people desire to shake hands with him, as the elector is proud to shake hands with the candidate whom he has elected as his representative. And, indeed, the magazinists may fairly be compared to the House of Commons—a mixed audience, representing every class—stormy, tumultuous, where great questions are being continually discussed; an assembly wherein men rise to be leaders of parties; out of which men are selected to rule distant provinces; out of which, also, every now and again, a member is translated to the Upper House, where he takes his seat among his peers, in a serener atmosphere, and among loftier traditions."

His reference to Macaulay reminded me of something that master stylist said about the state of history: "Good histories, in the proper sense of the word, we have not. (What of Gibbon?) But we have good historical romances, and good historical essays." Good historical essays. He was quite right, and there is no shame if one might one day be lucky enough to count himself among their number. It is every author's secret dread that he be found out to be seeking fame. But it is perhaps good policy to keep it from one's thoughts. You can hardly write well or for long with posterity looking over your shoulder.

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