Saturday, October 28, 2006

Mr. Trollope Tells It Like It Was--and Still Is

More than twenty ears ago, someone sitting across from me in the subway was reading a fat paperback with "The Way We Live Now" emblazoned on the cover. I was so intrigued by the title that I went to my local bookstore, the late lamented Spring Street Books, and searched it out. And thus began my relationship with Anthony Trollope.

After The Way We Live Now, I read Trollope's six Palliser novels and got a good friend hooked too. Later, for a few years I belonged to an online Trollope reading group, but fell by the wayside because I started to be irked by Trollope's tendency to recycle character and plot elements. Still, I reread The Way We Live Now every few years. After watching the BBC adaptation recently (which is quite good, but takes some major liberties with the source), I decided the time had come again. Plus I needed some escapist fiction, and nothing fills the bill like a sprawling Victorian novel--nearly 1000 pages in my 1982 Oxford edition.

I had remembered TWWLN as centering primarily on the "bloated swindler" Melmotte (played to perfection by David Suchet) and the selfish and penniless young baronet, Felix Carbury, who courts Melmotte's daughter for her supposed fortune. What I'd forgotten is that the book also delves into the London literary scene. In fact, its opening sentence (which would never set Miss Snark's--or anyone's--hair on fire) reads:
Let the reader be introduced to Lady Carbury, upon whose character and doings much will depend of whatever interest these pages may have, as she sits at her writing-table in her own room in her own house in Welbeck Street.
Lady C is a hack writer who puts as much, or more, time and effort into sucking up to newspaper editors as into her books:
...[commercial success] was to be obtained not by producing good books, but by inducing certain people to say that her books were good...She had no ambition to write a good book, but was painfully anxious to write a book that critics should say was good.
Her Criminal Queens, a fluffy and derivative popular history (contrast with Eleanor Herman's Sex with Kings and Sex with the Queen), is widely reviewed, and gets torn to shreds "with almost rabid malignity" in the 'Evening Pulpit,' edited by her supposedly dear friend, Mr. Alf.

Trollope makes these observations about book reviews, still true after 131 years:
There is the review intended to sell a book,--which comes out immediately after the appearance of the book, or sometimes before it; the review which gives reputation, but does not affect the sale, and which comes out a little later; the review which snuffs a book out quietly; the review which is to raise or lower the author a single peg, or two pegs, as the case may be; the review which is suddenly to make an author, and the review which is to crush him. An exuberant Jones [Alf's reviewer] has been known before now to declare aloud that he would crush a man, and a self-confident Jones has been known to declare that he has accomplished the deed. Of all reviews, the crushing review is the most popular, as being the most readable. When the rumour goes abroad that some notable man has been especially crushed--been positively driven over by an entire Juggernaut's car of criticism till his literary body be a mere amorphous mass,--then a real success has been achieved, and the Alf of the day has done a great thing; but even the crushing of a poor Lady Carbury, if it be absolute, is effective. Such a review will not make all the world call for the 'Evening Pulpit', but it will cause those who do take the paper to be satisfied with their bargain. Whenever the circulation of such a paper begins to slacken, the proprietors should, as a matter of course, admonish their Alf to add a little power to the crushing depatment.
Today's authors would do well to heed the timeless widom in the following passage--though then the "Letters" section of the NYT Book Review wouldn't be nearly so much fun.
But the poor authoress, though utterly crushed, and reduced to little more than literary pulp for an hour or two, was not destroyed. On the following morning she went to her publishers, and was closeted for half an hour with the senior partner, Mr. Leadham. "I've got it all in black and white," she said, full of the wrong which had been done her, "and can prove him wrong.... I'll write to Mr. Alf myself,--a letter to be published, you know."

"Pray don't do anything of the kind, Lady Carbury."

"I can prove that I'm right."

"And they can prove that you're wrong."

"I've got all the facts,--and the figures."

Mr. Leadham did not care for facts or figures,--had no opinion of his own whether the lady or the reviewer were right; but he knew very well that the 'Evening Pulpit' would surely get the better of any mere author in such a contention. "Never fight the newspapers, Lady Carbury. Who ever got any satisfaction out of that kind of thing?"...."It won't do us the least harm, Lady Carbury."

"It won't stop the sale?"

"Not much. A book of that sort couldn't hope to go on very long, you know. The 'Breakfast Table' gave it an excellent lift, and came at just the right time. I rather like the notice in the 'Pulpit, myself."

"Like it!" said Lady Carbury, still suffering in every fibre of her self-love from the soreness produced by those Juggernaut's car-wheels.

"Anything is better than indifference, Lady Carbury. A great many people remember simply that the book has been noticed, but carry away nothing as to the purport of the review. It's a very good advertisement."

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