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Authors And Publishers
by [?]

It is done. The publishers have formed a League. The poor sweated victims of the author’s greed have at last turned upon the oppressor. Mr. Gosse, on a memorable occasion, confusedly blending the tones of the prophet of righteousness with the accents of the political economist, admonished the greedy author that he was killing the goose with the golden eggs. And now the goose has resolved to be a goose no longer. The Authors’ Society, a sort of trade union, has been answered by the creation of a Publishers’ Union, with all the delightful potentialities of a literary lock-out. It is time, therefore, for a person without prejudice to say a word to both sides.

With the spirit which prompted the creation of the Authors’ Society, Literature has nothing to do. To define Literature exactly is not easy. To say at what point words become or cease to be literature is a problem similar in kind to the sophistical Greek puzzle of saying at what point the few become many. Perhaps we shall find a solution by looking at the genesis and history of written words. Literature, we find, began as religion. The earliest books of every nation are sacred books. Herbert Spencer dwells on the veneration which the average person feels for the printed word, his almost touching belief in books and newspapers. “I read it in a book” is equivalent to saying “It is certainly true.” The great philosopher has failed to see that this instinct is a survival from the times when the only books were holy books. The first book published in Europe, as soon as printing was invented, was the Latin Bible–the Mazarin Bible as it is called; and it is the Bible which is responsible for the belief in print. Despite the degradation of the printed word to-day, there is something fine in this tenacious popular instinct, as there is something ignoble in all Literature which palters with it. The Literature of every country is still sacred. The books of its sages and seers should still be holy books to it. The true man of letters always was and must always be a lay priest, even though he seem neither to preach nor to be religious in the popular sense of those terms. The qualities to be sought for in Literature are therefore inspiration and sincerity. The man of letters is born, not made. His place is in the Temple, and it is not his fault that the moneychangers have set up their stalls there. But, in addition to these few chosen spirits, born in every age to be its teachers, there is an overwhelming multitude of writers called into being by the conditions of the time. These are the artists whom Stevenson likened to the “Daughters of Joy.” They are cunning craftsmen, turning out what the public demands, without any priestly consciousness, and sometimes even without conscience, mere tradesmen with–at bottom–the souls of tradesmen. Their work has charm, but lacks significance. They write essays which are merely amusing, histories which are only facts, and stories which are only lies.

The capacity of the world for reading the uninspired is truly astonishing, and the hundred worst books may be found in every bookseller’s window. Would that it were of books that Occam had written: “Non sunt multiplicandi praeter necessitatem”! The men who produce these unnecessary books perform a necessary function, as things are. Why should they be less well treated than bootmakers or tailors, butchers or bakers or candlestick makers? Why should they not get as much as possible for their labours? Why should they not, like every other kind of working-man, found a Labour Union? Indeed, instead of censuring these authors for trying to obtain a fair wage, I feel rather inclined to reproach them for not having more closely imitated the methods of Trades-Unionism, for not having welded the whole writing body into a strong association for the enforcement of fair prices and the suppression of sweating, which is more monstrous and wide-spread in the literary than in any other profession whatever. Such an organisation would be met by many difficulties, for writing differs from other species of skilled labour by the immense differences of individual talent, while from professions in which there are parallel variations of skill, e.g., law and medicine, it differs by the fact that there is no initial qualification (by examination) attesting a minimum amount of skill. Not even grammar is necessary for authorship, or even for successful authorship. Besides which, writing is done by innumerable persons in their spare time–Literature is a world of inky-fingered blacklegs. Thus, writing admits neither of the union-fixed minimum wage of the manual labourer, nor of the etiquette-fixed fee of the professional; so that the methods of the trade union are only partially applicable to the ink-horny-handed sons of toil. But even the possible has not yet been achieved, so that the current idea of an organization of the writing classes, against which publishers have had to gird up their loins to fight, has very little foundation. There is nothing but a registered disorganisation. What the publishers are really afraid of is not a Society, but a man, and that man a middle-man? no other than that terrible bogey, the agent, who drinks champagne out of their skulls.