Odd lots of journalism—Respectability and its relation to journalism—The abuse of the journal—The laudation of the journalist—Abuse the consequence of popularity—Popularity the consequence of abuse—Drain-work and grey hairs—“Don’t neglect your reading for the sake of reviewing”—Reading for pleasure or to criticise—Literature—Deterioration—The Civil List Pension—In exchange for a soul.

SOME years ago there was an auction of wine at a country-house in Scotland, the late owner of which had taken pains to gain a reputation for judgment in the matter of wine-selecting. He had all his life been nearly as intemperate as a temperance orator in his denunciation of whisky as a drink, hoping to inculcate a taste for vintage clarets upon the Scots; but he that tells the tale—it is not a new one—says that the man died without seriously jeopardizing the popularity of the native manufacture. The wines that he had laid down brought good prices, however; but, at the close of the sale, several odd lots were “put up,” and all were bought by a local publican. A gentleman who had been present called upon the publican a few days afterwards, and found him engaged in mixing into one huge cask all the “lots” that he had bought—Larose, Johannisberg, Château Coutet.

“Hallo,” said the visitor, “what’s this mixture going to be, Rabbie?”

“Weel, sir,” said the publican, looking with one eye into the cask and mechanically giving the contents a stir with a bottle of Sauterne which he had just uncorked—“Weel, sir, I think it should be port, but I’m no sure.”

These odd lots of journalistic experiences and recollections may be considered a book, “but I’m no sure.”

After all, “a book’s a book although”—it’s written by a journalist. Nearly every writer of books nowadays becomes a journalist when he has written a sufficient number. He is usually encouraged in this direction by his publishers.

“You’re a literary man, are you not?” a stranger said to a friend of mine.

“On the contrary, I’m a journalist,” was the reply.

“Oh, I beg your pardon, I’m sure,” said the inquirer, detecting a certain indignant note in the disclaimer. “I beg your pardon. What a fool I was to ask you such a question!”

“I hope he wasn’t hurt,” he added in an anxious voice when we were alone. “It was a foolish question; I might have known that he was a journalist, he looked so respectable.”

We are all respectable nowadays. We belong to a recognised profession. We may pronounce our opinions on all questions of art, taste, religion, morals, and even finance, with some degree of diffidence: we are at present merely practising our scales, so to speak, upon our various “organs,” but there is every reason to believe that confidence will come in due time. Are not our ranks being recruited from Oxford? Some years ago men drifted into journalism; now it is looked on as a vocation. Journalism is taken seriously. In a word, we are respectable. Have we not been entertained by the Lord Mayor of London? Have we not entertained Monsieur Emile Zola?

People have ceased to abuse us as they once did with great freedom: they merely abuse the journals which support us. This is a healthy sign; for it may be taken for granted that people will invariably abuse the paper for which they subscribe. They do not seem to feel that they get the worth of their subscription unless they do so. It is the same principle that causes people to sneer at a dinner at which they have been entertained. If we are not permitted to abuse our host, whom may we abuse? The one thing that a man abuses more than to-day’s paper is the negligence of the boy who omits to deliver it some morning. Only in one town where I lived did I find that a newspaper was popular. (It was not the one for which I wrote.) The fathers and mothers taught their children to pray, “God bless papa, mamma, and the editor of the Clackmannan Standard.”

I met that editor some years afterwards. He celebrated a sort of impromptu Comminution Service against the people amongst whom he had lived. They had never paid for their subscriptions or their advertisements, and they had thus lowered the Standard of Clackmannan and of the editor’s confidence in his fellow-men.

The only newspaper that is in a hopeless condition is the one which is neither blessed at all nor cursed at all. Such a newspaper appeals to no section of the public. It has always seemed to me a matter of question whether a man is better satisfied with a paper that reflects (so far as it is possible for a paper to do so) his own views, or with one that reflects the views that he most abhors. I am inclined to believe that a man is in a better humour with those of his fellow-men whom he has thoroughly abused, than with the one whom he greets every morning on the top of his omnibus.

It is quite a simple matter to abuse a newspaper into popularity. One of the Georges whose biographies have been so pleasantly and touchingly written by Thackeray and Mr. Justin M’Carthy, conferred a lasting popularity upon the man whom he told to get out of his way or he would kick him out of it.

The moral of this is, that to be insulted by a monarch confers a greater distinction upon a man living in Clapham or even Brixton than to be treated courteously by a greengrocer.

But though people continue to abuse the paper for which they subscribe, and for which they are usually some year or two in arrears in the matter of payment, still it appears to me that the public are slowly beginning to comprehend that newspapers are written (mostly) by journalists. Until recently there was, I think, a notion that journalists sat round a bar-parlour telling stories and drinking whisky and water while the newspapers were being produced. The fact is, that most of the surviving anecdotes of the journalists of a past generation smell of the bar-parlour. The practical jesters of the fifties and the punsters of the roaring forties were tap-room journalists. They died hard. The journalists of to-day do not even smile at those brilliant sallies—bequeathed by a past generation—about wearing frock-coats and evening dress, about writing notices of plays without stirring from the taproom, about the mixing up of criticisms of books with police-court reports. Such were the humours of journalism thirty or forty years ago. We have formed different ideas as to the elements of humour in these days. Whatever we may leave undone it is not our legitimate work.

It was when journalism was in a state of transition that a youth, waiting on a railway platform, was addressed by a stranger (one of those men who endeavour to make religious zeal a cloak for impertinence)—“My dear young friend, are you a Christian?”

“No,” said the youth, “I’m a reporter on the Camberwell Chronicle.”

On the other hand, it was a very modern journalist whose room was invaded by a number of pretty little girls one day, just to keep him company and chat with him for an hour or so, as it was the day his paper—a weekly one—went to press. In order to get rid of them, he presented each of them with a copy of a little book which he had just published, writing on the flyleaf, “With the author’s compliments.” Just as the girls were going away, one of them spied a neatly bound Oxford Bible that was lying on the desk for editorial notice.

“I should so much like that,” she cried, pouncing upon it.

“Then you shall have it, my dear, if you clear off immediately,” said the editor; and, turning up the flyleaf, he wrote hastily on it, “With the author’s compliments.”

Yes, he was a modern journalist, and took a reasonable view of the authoritative nature of his calling.

Our position is, I affirm, becoming recognised by the world; but now and again I am made to feel that such recognition does not invariably extend to all the members of our profession. Some years ago I was getting my hair cut in Regent Street, and, as usual, the practitioner remarked in a friendly way that I was getting very grey.

“Yes,” I said, “I’ve been getting a grey hair or so for some time. I don’t know how it is. I’m not much over thirty.” (I repeat that the incident occurred some years ago.)

“No, sir, you’re not what might be called old,” said he indulgently. “Maybe you’re doing some brain-work?” he suggested, after a pause.

“Brain-work?” said I. “Oh no! I work for a daily paper, and usually write a column of leading articles every night. I produce a book a year, and a play every now and again. But brain-work—oh no!”

“Oh, in that case, sir, it must be due to something else. Maybe you drink a bit, sir.”

I did not buy the bottle which he offered me at four-and-nine. I left the shop dissatisfied.

This is why I hesitate to affirm that modern journalism is wholly understanded of the people.

But for that matter it is not wholly understanded of the people who might be expected to know something about it. The proprietor of a newspaper on which I worked some years ago made use of me one day to translate a few lines of Greek which appeared on the back of an old print in his possession. My powers amazed him. The lines were from an obscure and little-known poem called the “Odyssey.”

“You must read a great deal, my boy,” said he.

I shook my head.

“The fact is,” said I, “I’ve lately had so much reviewing to do that I haven’t been able to read a single book.”

“That’s too hard on you,” said he gravely. “Get some of the others of the staff to help you. You mustn’t neglect your reading for the sake of reviewing.”

I didn’t.

Upon another occasion the son of this gentleman left a message for me that he had taken a three-volume novel, the name of which he had forgotten, from a parcel of books that had arrived the previous day, but that he would like a review of it to appear the next morning, as his wife said it was a capital story.

He was quite annoyed when the review did not appear.

But there are, I have reason to know, many people who have got no more modern ideas respecting that branch of journalism known as reviewing.

“Are you reading that book for pleasure or to criticise it?” I was asked not so long ago by a young woman who ought to have known better. “Oh, I forgot,” she added, before I could think of anything sharp to say by way of reply—“I forgot: if you meant to review it you wouldn’t read it.”

I thought of the sharp reply two days later.

So it is, I say, that some of the people who read what we write from day to day, have still got only the vaguest notions of how our work is turned out.

Long ago I used to wish that the reviewers would only read the books I wrote before criticising them; but now my dearest wish is that they will review them (favourably) without reading them.

I heard some time ago of a Scot who, full of that brave sturdy spirit of self-reliance which is the precious endowment of the race of North Britons, came up to London to fight his way in the ranks of literature. The grand inflexible independence of the man asserted itself with such obstinacy that he was granted a Civil List Pension; and while in receipt of this form of out-door relief for poets who cannot sell their poetry, he began a series of attacks upon literature as a trade, and gave to the world an autobiography in a sentence, by declaring that literature and deterioration go hand in hand.

This was surely a very nasty thing for the sturdy Scotchman, who had attained to the honourable independence of the national almshouse, to say, just as people were beginning to look on literature as a profession.

But then he sat down and forthwith reeled off a string of doggerel verses, headed “The Dismal Throng.” In this fourth-form satirical jingle he abused some of the ablest of modern literary men for taking a pessimistic view of life. Now, who on earth can blame literary men for feeling a trifle dismal if what the independent pensioner says is true, and success in literature can only be obtained in exchange for a soul? The man who takes the most pessimistic view of the profession of literature should be the last to sneer at a literary man looking sadly on life.

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