On the Ambition of Authorship
To lay down in the shape of practical moral rules courses of conduct only to be made real by the rarest states of motive and disposition, tends not to elevate but to degrade the general standard, by turning that rare attainment from an object of admiration into an impossible prescription, against which the average nature first rebels and then flings out ridicule. It is for art to present images of a lovelier order than the actual, gently winning the affections, and so determining the taste. But in any rational criticism of the time which is meant to guide a practical reform, it is idle to insist that action ought to be this or that, without considering how far the outward conditions of such change are present, even supposing the inward disposition towards it. Practically, we must be satisfied to aim at something short of perfection—and at something very much further off it in one case than in another. While the fundamental conceptions of morality seem as stationary through ages as the laws of life, so that a moral manual written eighteen centuries ago still admonishes us that we are low in our attainments, it is quite otherwise with the degree to which moral conceptions have penetrated the various forms of social activity, and made what may be called the special conscience of each calling, art, or industry. While on some points of social duty public opinion has reached a tolerably high standard, on others a public opinion is not yet born; and there are even some functions and practices with regard to which men far above the line in honourableness of nature feel hardly any scrupulosity, though their consequent behaviour is easily shown to be as injurious as bribery, or any other slowly poisonous procedure which degrades the social vitality.
Among those callings which have not yet acquired anything near a full-grown conscience in the public mind is Authorship. Yet the changes brought about by the spread of instruction and the consequent struggles of an uneasy ambition, are, or at least might well be, forcing on many minds the need of some regulating principle with regard to the publication of intellectual products, which would override the rule of the market: a principle, that is, which should be derived from a fixing of the author’s vocation according to those characteristics in which it differs from the other bread-winning professions. Let this be done, if possible, without any cant, which would carry the subject into Utopia away from existing needs. The guidance wanted is a clear notion of what should justify men and women in assuming public authorship, and of the way in which they should be determined by what is usually called success. But the forms of authorship must be distinguished; journalism, for example, carrying a necessity for that continuous production which in other kinds of writing is precisely the evil to be fought against, and judicious careful compilation, which is a great public service, holding in its modest diligence a guarantee against those deductions of vanity and idleness which draw many a young gentleman into reviewing, instead of the sorting and copying which his small talents could not rise to with any vigour and completeness.
A manufacturer goes on producing calicoes as long and as fast as they can find a market for them; and in obeying this indication of demand they give their factory its utmost usefulness to the world in general and to themselves in particular. Another manufacturer buys a new invention of some light kind likely to attract the public fancy, is successful in finding a multitude who will give their testers for the transiently desirable commodity, and before the fashion is out, pockets a considerable sum: the commodity was coloured with a green which had arsenic in it that damaged the factory workers and the purchasers. What then? These, the manufacturer contends (or does not know or care to contend), are superficial effects, which it is folly to dwell upon while we have epidemic diseases and bad government.
The first manufacturer we will suppose blameless. Is an author simply on a par with them, as to the rules of production?
The author’s capital is their brain-power—power of invention, power of writing. The manufacturer’s capital, in fortunate cases, is being continually reproduced and increased. Here is the first grand difference between the capital which is turned into calico and the brain capital which is turned into literature. The calico scarcely varies in appropriateness of quality, no consumer is in danger of getting too much of it, and neglecting his boots, hats, and flannel-shirts in consequence. That there should be large quantities of the same sort in the calico manufacture is an advantage: the sameness is desirable, and nobody is likely to roll his person in so many folds of calico as to become a mere bale of cotton goods, and nullify his senses of hearing and touch, while his morbid passion for Manchester shirtings makes him still cry “More!” The wise manufacturer gets richer and richer, and the consumers he supplies have their real wants satisfied and no more.
Let it be taken as admitted that all legitimate social activity must be beneficial to others besides the agent. To write prose or verse as a private exercise and satisfaction is not social activity; nobody is culpable for this any more than for learning other people’s verse by heart if lie does not neglect their proper business in consequence. If the exercise made them sillier or secretly more self-satisfied, that, to be sure, would be a roundabout way of injuring society; for though a certain mixture of silliness may lighten existence, we have at present more than enough. But one who publishes writings inevitably assumes the office of teacher or influencer of the public mind. Let them protest as they will that the writer only seeks to amuse, and has no pretension to do more than while away an hour of leisure or weariness—“the idle singer of an empty day”—they can no more escape influencing the moral taste, and with it the action of the intelligence, than a setter of fashions in furniture and dress can fill the shops with their designs and leave the garniture of persons and houses unaffected by their industry.
For one who has a certain gift of writing to say, “I will make the most of it while the public likes my wares—as long as the market is open and I am able to supply it at a money profit—such profit being the sign of liking,” they should have a belief that their wares have nothing akin to the arsenic green in them, and also that their continuous supply is secure from a degradation in quality which the habit of consumption encouraged in the buyers may hinder them from marking their sense of by rejection; so that they complain, but pay, and read while they complain. Unless they have that belief, they are on a level with the manufacturer who gets rich by fancy-wares coloured with arsenic green. They really care for nothing but their income. They carry on authorship on the principle of the gin-palace.
And bad literature of the sort called amusing is spiritual gin.
A writer capable of being popular can only escape this social culpability by first of all getting a profound sense that literature is good-for-nothing, if it is not admirably good: they must detest bad literature too heartily to be indifferent about producing it if only other people don’t detest it. And if they have this sign of the divine afflatus within them, they must make up their mind that they must not pursue authorship as a vocation with a trading determination to get rich by it. It is in the highest sense lawful for them to get as good a price as they honourably can for the best work they are capable of; but not for them to force or hurry their production, or even do over again what has already been done, either by themselves or others, so as to render their work no real contribution, for the sake of bringing up their income to the fancy pitch. An author who would keep a pure and noble conscience, and with that a developing instead of degenerating intellect and taste, must cast out of their aims the aim to be rich. And therefore they must keep their expenditure low—they must make for themselves no dire necessity to earn sums in order to pay bills.
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Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880), known as George Eliot, was an author and poet. She was best known for her novels including Middlemarch.