Sunday, November 16, 2014
From the First Dixie Reader, 1863.
Watching History Happen
From the First Dixie Reader, 1863.
Fanny Fern, writing in the late 1860s, gives us a glimpse of the publishing world of a century and a half ago.
It is the most astonishing thing that persons who have not sufficient education to spell correctly, to punctuate properly, to place capital letters in the right places, should, when other means of support fail, send MSS. for publication. Now before me lies just such a MS., accompanying which is a letter requesting me to read it, give the writer my opinion of it, and hand the same to some publisher.
Now, here is my opinion. In the first place, every editor is crowded with offered MSS. from all sources. Secondly, many of the writers would not mind not receiving pay for the same, could they only see that MS. in print in a certain journal that they have selected. In fact, many times they would rather pay for having it inserted than to have it declined. This much for the glut in the market.
Then, after this, an editor makes his own selections. It may be he has already a sufficient corps of contributors, and does not care for, and will not entertain, any fresh applications. But suppose this is not the case. Suppose he looks over, or employs a person to look over, these various MSS. What chance, I ask you, among the myriads, has a MS., every other word of which is misspelt, and which is wrongly punctuated, and without paragraphs or capitals, and illegibly written beside, and, crowning bother of all, written on both sides of the page, over those which are just the reverse; which are no trouble to read, which require no revision, and which contain ideas as well as words?
Very well: after all that, an editor has to decide, among even these properly prepared MSS., which is best suited to his individual paper, about which he has, and very properly, his own notions and ideas. Now an article may be well written, and yet not be the thing he wishes for his paper, although it might be the very thing desired for another. Well—he of course rejects it, as he has an undoubted right to do. He could not carry on his paper or magazine successfully on any other principle. You would not ask a grocer to buy a piece of calico because you wanted money for that calico. He would immediately say, “It is not in my line of business; I can make no use of it. I am sorry you are in want of money; but business is business. I will make you a present of three or four dollars, as the case may be; but your calico is of no use to me.”
Now you could see the force of that: why can’t you be made to understand that it is just so, only a great deal more so, with an editor?
Perhaps you say to me, “Ah, you forget the time when you began.” I beg your pardon, but I do not. Many a weary tramp I had; much pride I put in my pocket, and few pennies, even with the advantage of a good education, and a properly prepared MS., and the initiation “of reading proof”—for my father, who was an editor, when I was not more than twelve years old—before I succeeded.
It is because I know; it is because I have been behind the scenes, that I tell you plainly the preliminary steps to be taken before you “send MSS. for publication,” to any one.
Then, don’t you see, it is not agreeable to write thus to a person who quite puts these preliminary steps out of sight, either through ignorance or conceit: My Dear Sir, or my Dear Madam, this wont do! you have neither education nor ideas. This appears to them unfeeling; but it is not. It is doing such persons a much greater kindness than you could do them by luring them on with the idea of reward, thus wasting their time, which might be used successfully in other directions, only to end in mortification and disappointment.
History and Biography show—perhaps you say to me—that many great men and great writers are deficient in spelling and chirography. Yes, that is true; but have you not admitted that they were “great writers”? An editor may be content to keep on sifting, if he is sure of finding wheat; but when the result is only chaff, life is too short for it; and his necessity to live, equally with your own, too pressing.
One specimen is as good as a thousand. My last was from a young person, who tells me that she is tired of sewing for a living, and wants to write; also, that she wants to write for a certain editor. Also, that this editor would do much better, were he to take the large sums he pays to his favorite contributors, who do not need it, and “assist struggling genius.” Also, that “she wishes me to remember that I once struggled myself.” Also, that she wishes me to inform her how I went to work to get a publisher.
Now, to begin with, this young woman misspelt every other word in her letter, besides entirely ignoring capitals and punctuation. This of course settled in the outset the question of her present literary possibilities. Editors do not expect to find these things for their correspondents; at least I know one who don’t; and when he “pays large sums of money to his favorite contributors” for supplying this very lack, with ideas included, I presume he knows what he is about, and I think he has the same right to prefer good spelling in his paper that the writer of this letter has to prefer literary work to sewing.
Now as to “how I got a publisher.” I didn’t get him. He got me. And when this young woman produces anything a publisher wants, or thinks he wants, she will probably have a call from one too.
Next, I don’t forget “that I once struggled myself.” It adds zest to my life every hour to remember it. I love the little cosey house I live in, as I never else could do, because I earned the money to buy it myself; and I thank God that, if I lost it to-day, and coupons and banks also gave out, that I am hale and strong enough, and have the will and the courage, even at this late day, to begin anew. So much for that. But I do not believe it to be kindness to advise this uneducated young woman to throw up her present means of support, how disagreeable soever it may be, for one, that in her present illiterate state is utterly hopeless.
Scores of such letters I get, so that I have sometimes thought I would have a printed circular, embodying the above obvious difficulties in the way of “literary aspirants,” and mail it on receipt of their epistles. To-day I concluded that I would, once for all, air my views on the subject. After this, every letter from a “literary aspirant” which is misspelled goes into my waste-paper basket.
Having said all this, I may, in justice to myself, own up to the fact, that time and again I have given up my own most imperative writing to correct, and try to make presentable, MSS. for which I was requested to “find a publisher,” and which I knew had not the ghost of a chance, and all because I did not, as this young woman advises me, “forget that I once struggled myself.” I never received one word of thanks for it, but instead dissatisfaction that “somehow” I had not insured success. I remember, in one instance, having spent nearly a month over a book in MS., laying aside a book of my own, then in process of preparation; often sitting up late at night, because I could not else get time enough to devote to it; the writer of this MS. repaying me only with abuse and defamation, as I afterwards learned.
So my conscience is quite clear on the subject of remembering, and in the best way too, my own early struggles. I have tried, in this article to express myself so as not to be misunderstood. Still I have no doubt that some “literary aspirant,” feeling himself or herself aggrieved, will haste to set me down an unfeeling wretch. I can stand it.