Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (6), Why waste time reading novels?

My next Trove Treasure is not, strictly speaking, Australian, because it features the English humorist Jerome K. Jerome. But, I found it reported in multiple Australian newspapers, which means that many Australians probably read it, and that makes it at least a bit relevant here. The first one I found was in The Inverell Times on June 25, 1904, so it is the one I edited. However, I then found the same piece in the West Gippsland Gazette; the Camperdown Chronicle; the Canowindra Star and Eugowra News; the The Walcha Witness and Vernon County Record; The Gundagai Times and Tumut, Adelong and Murrumbidgee District Advertiser; the Clarence and Richmond Examiner; the Narromine News and Trangie Advocate; The Cobar Herald; The Colac Herald – and, at this point, I stopped noting them. Enough already, as they say. All of these, except for the Canowindra paper, were published between late June and early July 1904. Canowindra’s was, for some reason, printed in 1907!

Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927), as I’m sure many of you know, was best known for his comedy novel, Three men in a boat, published in 1889. This book was one of those I remember from my mum’s bookshelves when I was quite a little girl – along with M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built, Eve Langley’s The pea pickers (my post), Henry Handel Richardson’s The fortunes of Richard Mahony, and her beloved “little Collins classics”.

According to Wikipedia (linked on his name), the financial security provided by his hit novel enabled Jerome to become a full-time writer. He wrote plays, essays, and novels, but, says Wikipedia, was never able to recapture the success of that first novel. Wikipedia mentions in passing his writing of satirical pieces for journals, and the piece I’m sharing here is clearly one of those, although I have not been able to identify the journal, referred to as M.A.P, from which the piece apparently comes.

Wasting time on reading!

The piece starts like this:

Our old and delightful friend, Jerome K. Jerome, in a most amusing contribution to “M.A.P.” thus discourses: —

“On a newspaper placard, the other day, I saw announced a new novel by a celebrated author. I bought a copy of the paper, and turned eagerly to the last page. I was disappointed to find that I had missed the first six chapters. The story had commenced the previous Saturday; this was Friday. I say I was disappointed, and so I was at first: but my disappointment did not last long. The bright and intelligent sub-editor, according to the custom now in vogue, had provided me with a short synopsis of those first six chapters, so that without the trouble of reading them, I knew what they were all about. ‘The first instalment,’ I learned, ‘introduces the reader to a brilliant and distinguished company assembled in the drawing room of Lady Mary’s maisonette in Park street, and much smart talk is indulged in.’ I know that ‘smart talk’ so well. Had I not been lucky in missing that first chapter I should have had to hear it all again.”

Woman reading with cushion

Haha, I thought, and read on. Of course, Jerome was being tongue-in-cheek, and goes on to argue why we should in fact read it all, not just a summary. He expresses concern that writers will be expected to write “novels in chapters not exceeding twenty words” and that ‘short stories will be reduced to the formula: “Little boy. Pair of skates. Broken ice. Heaven’s gates”.’

“Formerly”, he explains, “an author … would have spun it out into five thousand words”. Then, proposing that this “little boy” story would have been a Christmas story, he shares how he would have written it. He would have started it in the previous spring or summer to let us get to know the little boy:

He would have been a good boy; the sort of boy that makes a bee-line for the thinnest ice. He would have lived in a cottage. I could have spread that cottage over two pages; the things that grew in the garden; the view from the front door. You would have known that boy before I had done with him — felt you had known him all your life. His quaint sayings, his childish thoughts, his great longings would have been impressed upon you…

He continues in this vein, describing how he’d also develop the father and mother, the ice, and so on. “So much”, he says, “might have been done”:

When I think of that plot wasted in nine words, it makes me positively angry. And what is to become of us writers if this is to be the new fashion in literature? We are paid by the length of our manuscript, at rates from half-a-crown a thousand words, and upwards.

How, he asks, are writers to live on the income from the payment for 9-words? All very worrying, he says.

Aren’t we glad that what he feared didn’t eventuate!

12 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (6), Why waste time reading novels?

  1. I’m surprised by the number of times I’ve heard of this author’s most famous book, but I still have not read it. I do wonder why the article about him was so important to Australians during late June to early July. What happened exactly then? And what happened to make another paper bring it up a few years later?

    • Good questions Melanie. I assumed that this piece was published in England (in this thing called M.A.P.) around that time, and then picked up and syndicated in Australia, but I am mystified by the 3-years later one. Some editor must have seen it in their records and decided it filled a spot!

        • We had several moves too, though all within Australia so there was quite a bit of culling. I never forgave Mum for getting rid of my two favourite dolls, Priscilla and Judy! It’s probably why, like in your family, many books I vaguely remember from before 11 didn’t make it through the move that year.

        • My teddy lasted the distance… in fact, it was passed on to the Offspring in due course, and there were also two ‘teenage’ dolls sent to us by my Aunt in the UK, that lasted the distance too. My mother made outfits for them that matched all the clothes she made for us (as mothers did in those days) and my nieces, her granddaughters, used to play dress-ups with them. Copies of our school uniforms, ‘best’ and party frocks, and my first ever evening outfit in bright orange shantung, mini length of course!
          But books, I think, she would have thought were replaceable, or available from libraries. So they would have been shed…

        • There’s a logic to that I guess …

          My mum hated sewing clothes though she did a lot of it. In her last move, it was the books that gave her the most pain. I have a few of her little Collins classics and while I’ve downsized my own paperback classics I’ll be keeping those. (And my Barbies with the clothes I sewed … pretty much the only clothes I’ve ever sewed!)

        • Our ‘teenage’ dolls predated Barbie. They were over a foot tall, and had female silhouettes and arched insteps for the high heels. They’re probably collector’s items now, if they haven’t been turfed onto the tip…

        • I wondered how they fitted in. Ours were pretty much the original Barbies with the red bathing suits, “pearl” stud earrings, and soft hair – and mine never turned me into an appearance-focused girlie-girl.

        • What I love about my ‘teenage doll’ was that she came dressed as a ‘bride doll’ (with no sign of any male equivalent), but there was also a ‘baby doll’ in a little crib… and though I expect that adults had a chuckle over that, I never thought anything of it! I’ve still got the baby doll in her little crib, dressed in a little pink knitted layette made by my mother.
          Eventually I graduated to Barbies, and I did have a Ken, and between us my BFF and I had 5, 3 females and 2 males. We used them to enact scandalous dramas like the ones my mother was watching on Days of Our Lives…

        • My sister and I had 5 too, but 1 male. My mum didn’t watch DoOL, so our games were more innocent. Haha. I have a (larger) baby doll still in her pink knitted dress and bonnet, but I think the bootees have gone.

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