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An essay by James Runciman

On Writing Oneself Out

Title:     On Writing Oneself Out
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

Lord Beaconsfield once compared his opponents on the Treasury Bench to a line of exhausted volcanoes. They had taken office when they were full of mighty aspirations; they had poured forth measures of all sorts with prodigal vigour; and at last they were reduced to wait, supine and helpless, for the inevitable swing of the political pendulum. A similar process of exhaustion goes on among literary men; and there are certain symptoms which cause expert persons to say, "Ah, poor Blank seems to have written himself out!" I have occasionally alluded to this most distressing topic, but I have never discussed it fully.

The subject of brain-exhaustion has a very peculiar interest for the public as well as for the professional penman; half the slovenly prose which ordinary men use in their correspondence is due to the bad models set by written-out men, and the agonising exhibitions made by some thousands of public speakers in this devoted and long-suffering land are also due to the purblind weakness of the exhausted man. The wrought-out writer is not permitted to cease from work; he goes on droning out his fixed quantity of mortal dreariness day by day and week by week until his mind spins along a particular groove, and he probably repeats himself every day of his life without being aware that he is anything but brilliantly original. I am obliged to study many novels, and I know many most successful workers who at this present time are turning out the same fiction under varied names with monotonous regularity. They are not quite like an old hand whom I knew long ago, who used to promote the characters in novelettes of his own and turn them on to the market again and again; the effusions of this genius were not of sufficient importance to attract attention from folk with clear memories, and I believe that he escaped detection in a miraculous way. His untitled country gentleman became a baronet, the injured heroine was similarly moved up on the social scale, and the noble effort came forth with a fresh name, while the knowing old impostor chuckled in his garret and pouched his pittance. I believe the funny soul has passed away; but really there are many very pretentious persons who do little more than vary his methods unconsciously. Poor James Grant delighted many a schoolboy, and perhaps his best work was never quite so much appreciated as it ought to have been. "The Black Dragoons," "The Queen's Own," and "The Romance of War" all contained good work, and many gallant lads delighted their hearts with them; I know that one youth at least learned "The Black Dragoons" by heart, and amused the people in a lonely farm-house by reciting whole chapters on winter nights, and I have some reason to believe that the book gave the boy a taste for literature which ended in his becoming a novelist. But, as Grant went on with machine-like regularity, how curiously similar to each other his books became! Narvaez Cifuentes, in "The Romance of War," is the type of all the villains; the young dragoons were all alike; the wooden heroines might have been chopped out by a literary carpenter from one model; the charges, the escapes, the perils of the hero never varied very much from volume to volume; and the fact was obvious that the brain had ceased to develop any strikingly original ideas and only the busy hand worked on. A very sarcastic personage once observed that "it is better for literary men to read a little occasionally." To outsiders the advice may seem like a piece of grotesque fun; but those who know much of literary work are well aware that a writer may very easily become possessed by a sick disgust of books which never leaves him. He will look at volumes of extracts, he will skim poetry, he will read eagerly for a few days or weeks in order to get up a subject; but the pure delight in literature for its own sake has left him, and he is as decidedly prosaic a tradesman as his own hosier. Such a man soon joins the written-out division, and, unless he travels much or has a keenly humorous eye for the things about him, he runs a very good chance of becoming an intolerable bore. He forgets that the substance of his brain is constantly fading, and that he needs not only to replenish the physical substance of the organ by constant care, but to replenish all his dwindling stores of knowledge, ideas, and even of verbal resources. Among the older authors there were some who offered melancholy spectacles of mental exhaustion; and the practised reader knows how to look for particular features in their work, just as he looks for Wouvermans' white horse and Beaumont's brown tree. These literary spinners forget the example of Macaulay, who was quite contented if he turned out two foolscap pages as his actual completed task in mere writing for one day. He was never tired of laying in new stores, and he persistently refreshed his memory by running over books which he had read oftentimes before. The books and manuscripts which Gibbon read in twenty years reached such an enormous number that, when he attempted to form a catalogue of them, he was compelled to give up the task in despair; he was constantly adding to the enormous reservoir of knowledge which he had at command, and thus his work never grew stale, and he was ready instantly with a hundred illustrative lights on any point which chanced to crop up either in conversation or in the course of his reading. The cheap and flashy writer is inclined to disdain the men who are thorough in their studies; but, while his work grows thin and poor, the judicious reader's becomes marked by more and more of richness and fulness.

Burke kept his vast accumulations of knowledge perfectly fresh; and I notice in him that, instead of growing more staid and commonplace in his style as he increased in years, he grew more vigorous, until he actually slid into the excess of gaudy redundancy. I am sorry that his prose ever became Asiatic in its splendour; but even that fact shows how steadfast effort may prevent a man from writing away his originality and his freshness of manner. Observe the sad results of an antagonistic proceeding for even the mightiest of brains. Sir Walter Scott was building up his brain until he was forty years old; then we had the Homeric strength of "Marmion," the perfect art of the "Antiquary," the unequalled romantic interest of "Guy Mannering," "Rob Roy," "Ivanhoe," "Quentin Durward." The long years of steady production drained that most noble flood of knowledge and skill until we reached the obvious fatuity of "Count Robert" and the imbecilities of "Castle Dangerous." Any half-dozen of such books as "Redgauntlet," "The Pirate," and "Kenilworth" were sufficient to give a man the reputation of being great--and yet even that overwhelming opulence was at last worn down into mental poverty. Poor Scott never gave himself time to recover when once his descent of the last perilous slope had begun, and he suffered for his folly in not resting.

In Lord Tennyson's case we see how wisdom may preserve a man's power. The poet who gave us "Ulysses" so long ago, the poet who brought forth such a magnificent work as "Maud," retained his power so fully that thirty years after "Maud" he gave us "Rizpah." This continued freshness, lasting nearly threescore years, is simply due to economy of physical and mental resource, which is far more important than any economy of money. Charles Dickens cannot be said to have been fairly written out at any time; but he was often perilously near that condition; only his power of throwing himself with eagerness into any scheme of relaxation saved him; and, but for the readings and the unhappy Sittingbourne railway accident, he might be with us now full of years and honours. When he did suffer himself to be worked to a low ebb for a time, his writing was very bad. Even in the flush of his youth, when he was persuaded to write "Oliver Twist" in a hurry, he fell far below his own standard. I have lately read the book after many years, and while I find nearly all the comic parts admirable, some of the serious portions strike me as being so curiously stilted and bad that I can hardly bring myself to believe that Dickens touched them. An affectionate student of his books can almost always account for the bad patches in Dickens by collating the novels with the letters and diary. Much of the totally nauseating gush of the Brothers Cheeryble must have been turned out only by way of stop-gap; and there are passages in "Little Dorrit" which may have been done speedily enough by the author, but which no one of my acquaintance can reckon as bearable. Dickens saw the danger of exhausting himself before he reached fifty-four years of age, and tried to repair damages inflicted by past excesses; but he was too late, and though "Edwin Drood" was quite in his best manner, he could not keep up the effort--and we lost him.

As for the dismal hacks who sometimes call themselves journalists, I cannot grow angry with them; but they do test the patience of the most stolid of men. To call them writers--_ecrivains_--would be worse than flattery; they are paper-stainers, and every fresh dribble of their incompetence shows how utterly written out they are. Let them have a noble action to describe, or let them have a world-shaking event given them as subject for comment, the same deadly mechanical dulness marks the description and the article. Look at an article by Forbes or McGahan or Burleigh--an article wherein the words seem alive--and then run over a doleful production of some complacent hack, and the astounding range that divides the zenith of journalism from the nadir may at once be seen. The poor hack has all his little bundle of phrases tied up ready to his hand; but he has no brain left, and he cannot rearrange his verbal stock-in-trade in fresh and vivid combinations. The old, old sentences trickle out in the old, old way. Our friends, "the breach than the observance," "the cynosure of all eyes," "the light fantastic toe," "beauty when unadorned," "the poor Indian," and all the venerable army come out on parade. The weariful writer fills up his allotted space; but he does not give one single new idea, and we forget within a few minutes what the article pretended to say--in an hour we have forgotten even the name of the subject treated.

As one looks around on the corps of writers now living, one feels inclined to ask the old stale question, "And pray what time do you give yourself for thinking?" The hurrying reporter or special correspondent needs only to describe in good prose the pictures that pass before his eye; but what is required of the man who stays at home and spins out his thoughts as the spider spins his thread? He must take means to preserve his own freshness, or he grows more and more unreadable with a rapidity which lands him at last among the helpless, hopeless dullards; if he persists in expending the last remnants of his ideas, he may at last be reduced to such extremities that he will be forced to fill up his allotted space by describing the interesting vagaries of his own liver. Scores of written-out men pretend to instruct the public daily or weekly; the supply of rank commonplace is pumped up, but the public rush away to buy some cheap story which has signs of life in it. My impression is that it is not good for writers to consort too much with men of their own class; the slang of literature is detestable, and a man soon begins to use it at all seasons if he lives in the literary atmosphere. The actor who works in the theatre at night, and lives only among his peers during the day, ends by becoming a mummer even in private life; a teacher who does not systematically shake off the taint of the school is among the most tiresome of creatures; the man who hurries from race-meeting to race-meeting seems to lose the power of talking about anything save horses and bets; and the literary man cannot hope to escape the usual fate of those who narrow their horizon. When a man once settles down as "literary" and nothing else, he does not take long in reaching complete nullity. His power of emitting strings of grammatical sentences remains; but the sentences are only exudations from an awful blankness--he is written out. The rush after money has latterly brought some of our most exquisite writers of fiction into a condition which is truly lamentable; the very beauties which marked their early work have become garish and vulgarised, and, in running through the early chapters of a new novel, a reader of fair intelligence discovers that he could close the book and tell the story for himself. One artist cannot get away from sentimental merchant-seamen and lovely lady-passengers; another must always bring in an infant that is cast on shore near a primitive village; another must have for characters a roguish trainer of race-horses, an honest jockey, a dark villain who tampers with race-horses, and a dashing young man who is saved from ruin by betting on a race; another drags in a surprisingly lofty-minded damsel who grows up pure and noble amid the most repulsive surroundings; another can never forget the lost will; another depends on a mock-modest braggart who kills scores of people in a humorous way. The mould remains the same in each case, although there may be casual variations in the hue of the material poured out and moulded. All these forlorn folk are either verging toward the written-out condition or have reached the last level of flatness. Like the great painters who work for Manchester or New York millionaires, these novelists produce stuff which is only shoddy; they lower their high calling, and they prepare themselves to pass away into the ranks of the nameless millions whose works are ranged along miles of untouched shelves in the great public libraries. Fame may not be greatly worth trying for; but at least a man may try to turn out the very best work of which he is capable. Some of our brightest refuse to aim at the highest, and they land in the dim masses of the written-out.

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: On Writing Oneself Out