[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.
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.