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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

Letter To An Unsuccessful Literary Man

Title:     Letter To An Unsuccessful Literary Man
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

My Dear Sir,--I agree with every word you say. You have my entire sympathy. The world is indeed hard, hard to the sad--particularly hard to the unsuccessful. A sure five hundred a year covers a multitude of sorrows. It is ever an ill wind for the shorn lamb. If it be true that nothing succeeds like success, it is no less sadly true that nothing fails like failure. And when one thinks of it, it is only natural, for every failure is an obstruction in the stream of life. Metaphorical writers are fond of saying that the successful ride to success on the back of the failures. It is true that many rise on stepping-stones of their dead relations--but that is because their relations have been financial successes. In truth, instead of the failure making the fortune of the successful, it is just the reverse. A very successful man would be the more successful were it not for the failures--on whom he has either to spend his money to support, or his time to advise. The strong are said to be impatient towards the weak--and is it to be wondered at, in a world where even the strongest need all their strength, in a sea where the best swimmer needs all his wind and muscle and skill to keep afloat? If success is sometimes 'unfeeling' towards failure, failure is often unfair to success. Of course, 'it is He that hath made us and not we ourselves,' but that is a text that cuts both ways; and when all is said and done, the failure detracts from the force in the universe; he is the clog on the wheel of fortune. To say that the successful man benefits by the failure of others is as true as it would be to say that the ratepayer benefits by the poor-rates. You use the word 'charlatan' somewhat profusely of several successful writers, and no doubt you are right. But you must remember that it is a favourite charge against the gifted and the fortunate. Because we have failed by fair means, we are sure the other fellows have succeeded by foul. And, moreover, one is apt to forget how much talent is needed to be a charlatan. Never look down upon a charlatan. Courage, skill, personal force or charm, great knowledge of human nature, dramatic instinct, and industry--few charlatans succeed (and no one is called a charlatan till he _does_ succeed, be his success as low or high as you please) without possessing a majority of these qualities; how many of which--it would be interesting to know--do you possess?

Indeed, it would seem to need more gifts to be a rogue than an honest man, and there is a sense in which every great man may be described as a charlatan--_plus_ greatness; greatness being an almost indefinable quality, a quality, at any rate, on which there is a bewildering diversity of opinion.

You seem a little cross with publishers and editors. They have not proved the distinguished, brilliant, and sympathetic beings you imagined them in your boyish dreams. No doubt, publishers and editors enter hardly into the kingdom of heaven. But then, you see, they don't care so much about that; they are much more interested in the next election at certain fashionable clubs. It is really a little hard on them that they should suffer from the ignorant misconception of the literary amateur. It is only those who have had no dealings with them who would be unfair enough to expect publishers or editors to be literary men. They are business men--business men _par excellence_--and a good thing, too, for their papers and their authors. You lament their mercenary view of life; but, judging by your letter, even you are not disposed to regard money as the root of all evil.

You cannot understand why you have failed where others have succeeded. You have far more Greek than Keats, more history than Scott, and you know nineteen languages--ten of them to speak. With so many accomplishments, it must indeed be hard to fail--though you do not seem to have found it difficult. You have travelled too--have been twice round the world, and have a thorough knowledge of the worst hotels. Certainly, it is singular. Nevertheless, I must confess that the dullest men I have ever met have been professors of history; the worst poets have not only known Greek, but French as well; and, generally speaking the most tiresome of my acquaintances have more degrees than I have Latin to name them in. Alas! it is not experience, or travel, or language, but the use we make of them, that makes literary success, which, one may add, is particularly dependent--perhaps not unnaturally--on the use we make of language. A book may be a book, although there is neither Latin nor Greek, nor travel, nor experience--in fact 'nothing' in it; and though, like myself, you may pay an Oxford professor a thousand a year to correct your proofs, you may still miss immortality.

To these intellectual and general equipments you add goodness of heart, sincerity of conviction, and martyrdom for your opinions; you are, it would seem, like many others of us, the best fellow and greatest man of your acquaintance. Permit me to remind you that we are not talking of goodness of heart, of strength or beauty of character, but of success, which is a thing apart, a fine art in itself.

You confess that you are somewhat unpractical: you expect others--hard-worked journalists who never met you--to tell you what to read, how to form your style, and how 'to get into the magazines.' You are, you say, with something of pride, but a poor business man. That is a pity, for nearly every successful literary man of the day, and particularly the novelists, are excellent business men. Indeed, the history of literature all round has proved that the men who have been masters of words have also been masters of things--masters of the facts of life for which those words stand. Many writers have mismanaged their affairs from idleness and indifference, but few from incapacity. Leigh Hunt boasted that he could never master the multiplication-table. Perhaps that accounts for his comparative failure as a writer. Incompetence in one art is far from being a guarantee of competency in another, and a man is all the more likely to make a name if he is able to make a living--though, judging from Coleridge, it seems a good plan to let another hard-worked man support one's wife and children. On the other hand, though business faculty is a great deal, it is not everything: for a man may be as punctual and methodical as Southey, and yet miss the prize of his high calling, or as generally 'impossible' as Blake, and yet win his place among the immortals.

In fact, after all, success in literature has something to do with writing. In temporary success, industry and business faculty, and an unworked field--be it Scotland, Ireland, or the Isle of Man (any place but plain England!)--are the chief factors. For that more lasting success which we call fame other qualities are needed, such qualities as imagination, fancy, and magic and force in the use of words. Can you honestly say, O beloved, though tiresome, correspondent, that these great gifts are yours? Judging from your letter--but Heaven forbid that I should be unkind! For, need I say I love you with a fellow-feeling? Do you think that you are the only unappreciated genius on the planet--not to speak of all the other unappreciated geniuses on all the other planets? Thank goodness, the postal arrangements with the latter are as yet defective! Others there are with hearts as warm, minds as profound, and style at least as attractive, who languish in unmerited neglect--Miltons inglorious indeed, though far from mute.

Believe me, you are not alone. In fact, there are so many like you that it would be quite easy for you to find society without worrying me. And, for all of us, there is the consolation that, though we fail as writers, we may still succeed as citizens, as husbands and fathers and friends. As Whitman would say--because you are not Editor of _The Times_, do you give in that you are less than a man? There are poets that have never entered into the Bodley Head, and great prose-writers who have never sat in an editorial chair. Be satisfied with your heavenly crowns, O you whining unsuccessful, and leave to your inferiors the earthly five-shilling pieces.

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Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Letter To An Unsuccessful Literary Man