Getting Paid, Taking Aim, and Reporting in 1899 By James Stovall

EXCERPTED from The Writing Wright.

Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope wrote for money. He made out a schedule and stuck to it.

The way writers write – their habits, productivity, quirks, methods of procrastination, etc. – fascinate a lot of people, including me.

One of my favorite stories in this vein is that of Anthony Trollope, the mid-19th century British novelist and author of the Barsetshire series and the Palliser novels. Trollope’s books were highly popular in his day, and his work has retained many fans in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Trollope was manic about his writing. He would arise at 5:30 every morning and write for at least two-and-a-half hours. He would produce 250 words every 15 minutes. In his early years as a novelist, he had a job with the post office that required some train travel, and he would keep this writing schedule even if he was traveling.

Trollope saw novel-writing as work that had to be done. He wasn’t interested in inspiration nearly as much as productivity.

When I have commenced a book, I have always prepared a diary divided into weeks . . . In this I have entered day by day the number of pages that I have written, so that if at any time I slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there staring me in the face – and demanding of me increased labour.

Trollope made no secret of the fact that he wrote for money – something the critics of his day disdained.

Twain takes aim

In a famous 1895 essay, Mark Twain delivered a stinging critique of one of America’s 19th century literary icons, James Fennimore Cooper. Twain was very much a modern writer, advocating active, descriptive verbs and short rather than long words. His essay is worth reading, not necessarily for what it says about Cooper, but for what it says about writing itself.

In a defense of Cooper, Lance Schachterle and Kent Lyungquist say Twain manipulated the evidence against Cooper and was ultimately unfair to him.

The eighteen rules for effective fiction that Twain claims Cooper habitually violated fall under three heads: he could not formulate a plot that got anywhere; his characterization was vapid, inert, or unconvincing; and his diction was wretched. Twain seeks to win the reader’s assent to this view of Cooper by alternating elegant and brassy variations of his own critical judgment with illustrations apparently drawn straight from the text. Precisely by his choice of examples Twain reveals his satirical strategy. With “circumstantial evidence,” Twain actually distorts what Cooper wrote and presents the illusion of conclusive proof without any real substance. By carefully manipulating Cooper’s texts, willfully misreading, and sometimes fabricating evidence, Twain leaves the reader with the impression that he has polished Cooper off. By looking at Twain’s treatment of plot, characterization, and especially diction in The Deerslayer, we can lay bare Twain’s rhetorical strategy and satirical distortions.

Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Defenses: Twain and the Text of The Deer-slayer by Lance Schachterle and Kent Ljungquist (Worcester Polytechnic Institute), Studies in the American Renaissance, 1988.

Read Twain’s essay and see for yourself:

H.L. Mencken on being a newspaper reporter in 1899

+ With the changes in the news business, will succeeding generations experience what H.L. Mencken did as a newspaper reporter at the turn of the previous century?

In all of the events of H.L. Mencken’s eventful life, nothing matched his days as a young newspaper reporter (circa 1899):

My adventures in that character (a newspaper reporter) . . . had their moments – in fact, they were made up, subjectively, of one continuous, unrelenting, almost delirious moment – and when I revive them now it is mainly to remind myself and inform historians that a newspaper reporter, in those remote days, had a grand and gaudy time of it, and no call to envy any man. . . . I believed then and believe today, that it was the maddest, gladdest, damndest existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth.

H.L. Mencken was a newspaper and magazine editor, critic of American letters, and chief curmudgeon of the first half of the 20th century. His sharp wit was always at war with pomposity and hypocrisy and earned him the title, “Sage of Baltimore.”

His experience as a newspaper reporter predated mine by about 60 years, but the feeling was the same. I, too, had a “grand and gaudy time of it, and no call to envy any man.”

The passage quoted above is from his memoir Newspaper Days.

Jim Stovall teaches at the University of Tennessee and is the author of a number of textbooks on journalism and writing. He is also the author of the mystery novel Kill the Quarterback. His excellent journalism website is here:

The Writing Wright offers a banquet of information, quotations, essays and notes about writing, writers and the writing life. Here you will find out about Ernest Hemingway’s attitude toward punctuation, when Tom Clancy found out about submarines, and much more! Richly illustrated by the author, this book is one that you find hard to resist.

To read more about The Writing Wright, and to read another excerpt, click HERE.