Understanding the profession of writing

Over the weekend I have been working on reviews of books by two writers, E. F. Benson and Barbara Pym, and it struck me how difficult it is to untangle the writer from the profession of writing. Pym and Benson both wrote for money. That is in no way a criticism of either as a writer it is simply a statement of fact. Bills had to be paid and so they wrote in order to get money to pay the bills. Pym, whose books were initially successful experienced more than a decade during which publishers simply declined to accept her work on the grounds that it was \”dated\” and \”out of style.\” It was only when literary critics embraced her as a great novelist that she was once again able to publish her books. E. F. Benson had a much longer, less lauded and on some level more successful career as a popular writer. His first (anonymous) publication was in 1888 and his last books were published in 1940.

Pym\’s enforced hiatus from publication and Benson\’s prolific career indicate that for a writer to have a successful career they need more than talent. They also need the luck to be good at writing in the style that publishers are looking for. For the writer who wishes to be constantly in print it helps if they, like Benson, have mastered more than one style, more than one genre, have a social network that includes publishers, have entree to the society/world that people want to read about and are good at pitching (or willing to pitch) the focus of their writing at the sweet spot of the buying public.

It is difficult to assess Benson as a writer, especially when one is reviewing the many short stories he wrote. Benson\’s stories seem to be carefully tailored to suit the particular magazines in which they finally found a home. The writer who is mawkish in one story will be acerbic in another. The writer who is lyrical in one story will be terse in another. Yet there are some things I feel very certain of–that Benson had a keener eye for the self-deceptions of the class to which he was born than many of his contemporaries, that he was a consummate professional for whom writing was craft as well as a profession, that he, unlike many of his class (and many who aspired to become members of that class) believed that servants were human beings with feelings that mattered but that like so many others he found the stories of those human beings not interesting enough to write books about.

I don\’t know if Pym was unwilling or unable to change her writing to suit the changing desires of publishers. I do know that her books are full of keen insights about the relationships between men and women, the relationships between members of the middle and the working classes, the changing role the Church of England played in the life the ordinary person and the ways in which academics interacted with each other. Perhaps Pym was unwilling to change her voice and views enough to make her palatable to the editors who were turning her down. Perhaps Pym didn\’t think that the stories she wanted to tell could be told in any other way.

In the end I am left with only the evidence that I can gather from reading what each author wrote. I personally wish that Pym had been able to publish more for I have greatly enjoyed the ones I have read. I wonder if Benson had not had to keep an eye on the desires of the reading public if he would have written more the books and stories I most enjoy–or less.

In the end I am glad that Pym wrote as much as she did and the Benson wrote so much that I enjoy.


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