Wednesday, April 12, 2006

19th-Century Essay: "How To Fail in Literature

Here's a real gem! Back in 1890, Andrew Lang held a lecture on "How To Fail in Literature", and the book of the lecture is now available for free at the Gutenberg Project.

I cannot do justice to Lang's satirical, often hilarious lecture in a single blog post -- so I suggest you simply dive into it.

Here are a few choice quotes from How To Fail in Literature:

"I regard failure as the goal of ignorance, incompetence, lack of common sense, conceited dullness, and certain practical blunders now to be explained and defined."

"The young author generally writes because he wants to write, either for money, from vanity, or in mere weariness of empty hours and anxiety to astonish his relations. This is well, he who would fail cannot begin better than by having nothing to say."

"The less you observe, the less you reflect, the less you put yourself in the paths of adventure and experience, the less you will have to say, and the more impossible will it be to read your work. Never notice people’s manner, conduct, nor even dress, in real life. Walk through the world with your eyes and ears closed, and embody the negative results in a story or a poem."

"If your book does, in spite of all, get itself published, send it with your compliments to critics and ask them for favourable reviews. It is the publisher’s business to send out books to the editors of critical papers, but never mind that. "

"Go on telling critics that you know praise is only given by favour, that they are all more or less venal and corrupt and members of the Something Club, add that you are no member of a côterie nor clique, but that you hope an exception will be made, and that your volume will be applauded on its merits. You will thus have done what in you lies to secure silence from reviewers, and to make them request that your story may be sent to some other critic. This, again, gives trouble, and makes people detest you and your performance, and contributes to the end which you have steadily in view."

"Perhaps reviewing is not exactly a form of literature. But it has this merit that people who review badly, not only fail themselves, but help others to fail, by giving a bad idea of their works. You will, of course, never read the books you review, and you will be exhaustively ignorant of the subjects which they treat. But you can always find fault with the title of the story which comes into your hands, a stupid reviewer never fails to do this."

(All quotes from HOW TO FAIL IN LITERATURE, by Andrew Lang)

Happy Easter! :)

P.S.: But you don't have to be illiterate to be illiterate! This article points out that even the "highly educated" are often awful writers:
Language Crimes: A Lesson in How Not to Write,
Courtesy of the Professoriate

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