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The Auction Room of Letters

By Arthur Waugh

” THE present position of the literary man in England is very
much that of an auctioneer. He offers his goods for
sale ; other people, middlemen, come and bid for them, and the
prize goes to the highest bidder.” I have not the exact words by
me as I write ; nor, in a case of this sort, do exact words matter
very greatly. It is at least true that to this effect, and essentially
with this intention, a leading man of letters has within the last
month delivered himself upon the art which he espouses, that he
asks us to accept, as an illustration or parallelism, this comparison
of his calling with the huckstering of the auctioneer, and that such
a pronouncement appears, if one may conjecture assent from a har-
monious silence, to be received without disapproval by a large
number of his fellow-artists.

Now in the obiter dicta of distinguished men there is often more
food for reflection than is evident at first sight, and this playful—
or was it perhaps a reproachful ?—metaphor of auctioneer and
public, carries a good deal more of import on its back than
” many such like as’es of great charge,” which are bruited abroad
into fame from day to day. It contains in little the whole story
of the present position of authorship ; it reflects the past, it fore-
bodes the future, and it adorns its tale by pointing a strenuous


                        258 The Auction Room of Letters

moral which these few pages will do their best to indicate. For
the situation, which one is first inclined to laugh away as ridicu-
lous, has its serious side as well, and it is a question whether the
time has not arrived when we should take the literary auctioneer at
his own valuation, and write him off the books.

The first thing that strikes one, I suppose, is the consideration
of how immensely things have changed in the last few years to
make such utterance as that which opens this paper possible.
Except for a few dingy and detached houses here and there, houses
which seem to break out in the centre of our trim red-brick lines
of villadom—like ghosts to trouble joy—except for these (and they
are few), Grub Street is no more. We all remember, or our
fathers at least have declared unto us, the old-world vision of the
publisher. He was a Colossus, set up at the receipt of custom,
under whose huge legs the wretched authors, petty men, peeped
about, striving to rivet his attention with humble tributes of care-
fully copied manuscript. For such as he regarded there remained
hard terms and an invidious reputation. To-day all this is changed.
It is now the author (have we not received it on his own authority ?)
who mounts into the rostrum, hammer in hand, and having at his
side a bundle of type-writing, distributes to the struggling middle-
men a printed synopsis of the material on offer, and proceeds to
start the bidding with a wholesome reserve price. Then the
publishers continue one against the other, pitting royalty against
royalty, advance against advance, till down comes the hammer and
off go the copy and the profits. Nor, mark you, is the auctioneer
contented yet ; the open market, he says, is still not open enough
for his desires. It seems that these men of business do not know
the secrets of their own beggarly trade (have we not this, too, on
the authority of the author ?). They are the victims of a miser-
able niggardliness which forbids them to bid to the value of the


                        By Arthur Waugh 259

material. Soon the auctioneer will do without them. He will out
into the square, with twenty thousand copies of his novel in bales
behind him, and will sell them to the surging public himself, like a
cheap-jack on bank holiday. Then, even if he tires in the mid-
summer heat, and is so sadly overwrought at night that his hand
declines the pen, he will still have had his reward, he will have sold
himself without favour, and the family stocking will gape with
shekels. Faugh ! ” an ounce of civet, good apothecary !” The air
grows heavy.

We have had enough, I fancy, of this picture. In drawing it,
I doubt not, the author who is responsible for my elaboration did
so with more sincere regret for current circumstances than could
ever be felt by an alien to his art ; he merely stated a fact,
and that indisputable. There is, moreover, no possible profit in
lingering over trivial bickerings which the complacency of one
party and the self-advertisement of another have dragged into
the full view of the public press. Here, at least, the future
may be trusted to take care of its own ; there can be but one
end. The purpose of this paper is otherwise. It may be well,
perhaps, to consider by what steps the author reached the
rostrum, what he is doing there for art, and where he will
find himself when in the whirligig of time he is forced to
descend. Finally, it may be asked how all this is likely to serve
letters in the future, and what sort of literature is likely to
be produced under such conditions. For every man who sets
pen to paper, be he Laureate or the humblest journalist, must, so
far as he is worthy of his calling, prefer the welfare of literature to
the gains of his own exchequer, and much of the lamentable policy
which has ushered in this new era of letters has been due, it is but
fair to suppose, to an honest but misdirected desire to further her
claims to recognition. Is she, then, we may ask, likely to benefit


The Yellow Book—Vol. VI. Q

                        260 The Auction Room of Letters

by this perpetual insistence upon pecuniary reward ? And if not,
where will she suffer ?

The increase in the author’s emolument has been traced to
many sources ; yet the most likely origin has been strangely over-
looked. A little reflection, however, will show that the growth in
prices has advanced pari passu with the multiplication of periodical
literature. Forty or fifty years ago there were comparatively few
magazines, and the novelist was obliged to work in the large.
His every output was a full-length novel : the making of this took
time, and the rate of production was slow. By sure degrees, how-
ever, the taste for snippet literature has grown and grown ; one
magazine after another has leapt into success, and the demand for
the short story has become paramount. At the same time com-
petition has arisen. Each new magazine desires to open with the
best names : no author, however prolific, could keep pace with
the whole field : it becomes necessary, therefore, for editor to bid
against editor. The booths are set up, and business is astir.
Meanwhile, more and more material is forthcoming : the short
stories are collected into books : the many serials seek their
publishers. Obviously, therefore, the number of these industrious
middlemen must increase ; the same interests come to the surface,
and there follows a further competition to secure book-rights.
Then follows the question of time. Editors begin to look ahead.
If they cannot have Mr. X.’s next story, they invite a lien upon
the next but one, and in a very short time the author finds himself
bound far into the future. Here, then, by the simplest method of
evolution, we have the prevalent problems of competition and
literary mortgage. And very far afield have these things led us of

The air is full of rumours, the papers of paragraphs, which bear
evidence to the strain of rivalry between men of business reacting


                        By Arthur Waugh 261

upon authorship. We are told of one author who has bound
himself to the end of the century to produce stories of one
kind and another to fit the dates of his editors. Year
in, year out, in sickness or in health, in the heat of summer
and the bite of winter, is that author fixed to his desk, pen
in hand, covering reams of foolscap, for the satisfaction of
contracts entertained without the prejudice of circumstance.
We know of another author, exploited by a far-seeing editor,
whose work was so universally advertised by paragraph and table-
talk, that actually before his first book was in proof at the printers
it had been lauded by half the papers in London as a coming
wonder. Nor do exceptional examples of this kind stand unsup-
ported by a common environment. The very conversation of
literature is changed : its view of its own privileges is translated.
When two men of letters are discussing a third, do they set them-
selves to speak of the literary quality of his last volume, of its
sincerity, its distinction, its place in the progress of thought ?
Nine times out of ten the subject that chiefly interests them is
the rate of pay which he receives per thousand words. Indeed,
that same phrase, ” per thousand words ” has slain ten thousand
reputations. You might range the living novelists now, in a list
of their own recital, apportioning their fame by that ” rate per
thousand words.” Indeed, to hear and to read of some of them,
one verily believes that there are authors who think, feed, and
dream upon this rate of theirs, until they are half sick with green
jealousy when they hear that A. and B. have ” gone up ” by a
guinea this month, while they themselves have declined by a
shilling. And this, too, is called literary ambition.

Indeed, the reader of these random observations will by this
time have noticed, it may be with amusement, that they tend to
treat literature as though it were solely confined to the modern


                        262 The Auction Room of Letters

novel. For the present context this must be the case. The con-
cerns of the auction-room are so far centred upon fiction alone.
For, as we have already noticed, this activity of the middleman is
necessarily dependent on the demand of the mob, and while it is
probable that more books are being read in this year of grace than
in any of its predecessors, it is also certain that at no time has the
general public been so blind to the claims of literary merit. For
poetry it has no taste and absolutely no judgment. If it is told
sufficiently often that a certain poem is fine literature, it will in
time come to believe it, much as it takes its religious tenets on
trust, because it has heard them so often promulgated. In neither
case can it appreciate for itself. For criticism, sociology, philo-
sophy it has no ear; it seeks amusement, and it buys the latest
story. Hence it comes that it is the field of fiction alone that is
given over to profitable money-making ; hence, too, it follows
that the successful novelist has come to regard the six-shilling
novel as the only vehicle of literary expression, and has taken
himself rather more seriously than circumstances have demanded.
Nevertheless, from a purely insular point of view he is, beyond
doubt, a very important person. It is ungracious in an English
man to reflect, even in passing, upon his motherland, still it is
difficult to avoid the confession that Napoleon’s definition of
us was regrettably true in its essentials. We are, by nature, a
nation of shopkeepers, and the thing that sells best among us has
gained a spurious but incalculable importance. The novelist,
therefore, has now his day, and he is making the best of it. He
looms large in the public gaze : he fills columns of the public
prints : the work he produces is, by virtue of its popularity, the
literature of the hour. It only remains to concede the situation,
and to consider whether, under the progress of present circum-
stances, it is likely to be the literature of the-future.

                                                A literary

                        By Arthur Waugh 263

A literary critic, himself no less distinguished than the novelist
whose words are serving us for a text, has recently expressed his
view of the probable complications in store for the novelist. He
said, if my memory stands good, that the prevalence of the
pecuniary estimate was resulting in a pressure all along the line,
that the author, in demanding high terms of the publisher, was
pressing him to such a degree that he was, in turn, forced to press
the bookseller, and that the final result would be that the public
would refuse to respond, and that the old machinery would be
thrown out of gear. Well, there may be truth in this, but there
is a good deal to be said on the other side. The publisher, after
all, is no sucking-dove, no shorn lamb which needs our poor
protection, if his grasp of business principles is insufficient to
keep him out of unprofitable bargains, he can only thank his own
indiscretion if he finds himself in eventual liquidation. He starts
business as a business-man, and as a business-man he must be
judged. He is fairly sure to take care of himself. On the con-
trary, it is the novelist who must look to his own interests : for it
is they and not the publishers that are in jeopardy. We have seen
how this eternal care for pence results in injudicious contracts ;
let us now see whether these contracts will not, in reaction, end
in a lack even of those miserable pence for which they were
contrived. We are all slow to learn by experience, but really the
tardiness of the novelist is amazing. You would suppose that,
with the field of literature scattered, as it is, with dead and dying
reputations, the author would begin to lose some confidence in the
constancy of his public, but it is just this fickleness that he is
slowest to comprehend. He makes one immense, phenomenal
success, and in a flash the world is all before him. He will plant
vineyards and oliveyards, he will store up his grain in goodly
garners ; he will live happily for ever after. And all the while at


                        264 The Auction Room of Letters

his ear Experience is whispering unheard, ” Thou fool ! this
night shall thy fame be required of thee.”

The British public is the most fickle body that ever drew
together for mutual protection, and in nothing is it more fickle
than in its literary predilections. The idol of its afternoon is an
outcast by sunset, and the only possibility of retaining its favour
lies in an assiduous and heart-whole study of its inclination. The
novelist who is to continue popular must work with every instinct
clear, every faculty alive ; he must change his course and tack
with the popular breeze ; his eye must follow every cloud, be
it no larger than a man’s hand, for the least shadow on the
horizon grows in an hour into a tempest. During the last few
years there has been success upon success that promised stability :
one reputation has trod upon another’s heels, has passed, and
lost outline. There is scarcely a prominent novelist of twelve
years ago who enjoys an equal favour to-day. All this your
optimist adventurer forgets. He forgets, too, that those grinding
contracts of his will press upon him at the very hour when he is
least in trim for work, that in their obligation he is bound, in
course of time, to turn out material unworthy of his best, and
that the public, reminded of this by its critics—reminded, too, by
a certain sense of selection which, to do it justice, it has acquired
in its study of fiction—will have no compunction, in the hour of
his distress, in bowing him to the door. Then the publisher, too,
will desert his auction-room, and his occupation will be gone.

You cannot serve Art and Mammon ; indeed, it is hard enough
to serve Mammon alone, for any length of time, with any con-
sistency of return. And if the novelist is likely, by mixing himself
overmuch with business interests to compass his own financial
ruin, is it probable that he will contrive, in the stress of his daily
avocations of the rostrum, to leave behind him the name of an


                        By Arthur Waugh 265

artist, a reputation that can endure ? No man deserving the
name of author ever yet wrote a book without some faint hope
that it might outlast himself; that he might be raising, if not
the fabric, at least the pedestal of a ” monument more enduring
than brass. ” Yet no book ever lived, it is safe to say, that was
thrown off ” in feverish haste to satisfy the demands of an impor-
tunate publisher. Nowadays, the word ‘ Dignity ‘ is supposed
to carry with it the trail of the prig : still, every profession,
sincerely followed, is capable of dignified repute. Where, then,
in all this turmoil of the market, is the boasted dignity of letters ?

If ever a calling existed in England whose record was studded
with things noble and of good report, it is the calling that can
boast the service of Shakspeare, of Milton, of Goldsmith, and of
Wordsworth. Surely the shadows of the great must move rest-
lessly in shame by Stratford Church and Chalfont stream when
they learn that the literary man is, upon his own confession and
at his own desire, translated into an unctuous auctioneer. But
shame should not be confined to the dead : it is high time that
it infected the living. There are signs, fortunately, that it is even
now doing so. It may be, indeed, that we ourselves are beginning
to appreciate that the new era of letters is not so much decadent
as vulgar ; it may even prove that the next development of the
problem will be a return to taste and a recrudescence of dignity.
If so, the uses of perversity will have gained another example,
and the cause of literature will have been served by what at
present appears the least promising of its issues.

MLA citation:

Waugh, Arthur. “The Auction Room of Letters.” The Yellow Book, vol. 6, July 1895, pp. 257-265. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.