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0105_001E The Man of Letters as a Man of Business William Dean Howells

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In spite of the fact that short stories when gathered into a volume and republished would not sell so well as a novel, the short story flourished, and its success in the periodicals began to be felt in the book trade: volumes of short stories suddenly began to sell. But now again, it is said the bottom has dropped out, and they do not sell, and their adversity in book form threatens to affect them in the magazines; an editor told me the other day that he had more short stories than he knew what to do with; and I was not offering him a short story of my own, either.

A permanent decline in the market for a kind of literary art which we have excelled in, or if we have not excelled, have done some of our most exquisite work, would be a pity.

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There are other sorts of light literature once greatly in demand, but now apparently no longer desired by editors, who ought to know what their readers desire. Among these is the travel sketch, to me a very agreeable kind, and really to be regretted in its decline. There are some reasons for its decline besides a change of taste in readers, and a possible surfeit. Travel itself has become so universal that everybody, in a manner, has been everywhere, and the foreign scene has no longer the charm of strangeness. We do not think the Old World either so romantic or so ridiculous as we used; and perhaps from an instinctive perception of this altered mood writers no longer appeal to our sentiment or our humor with sketches of outlandish people and places. Of course this can hold true only in a general way; the thing is still done, but not nearly so much done as formerly. When one thinks of the long line of American writers who have greatly pleased in this sort, and who even got their first fame in it, one must grieve to see it obsolescent. Irving, Curtis, Bayard Taylor, Herman Melville, Ross Browne, Ik Marvell, Longfellow, Lowell, Story, Mr. James, Mr. Aldrich, Colonel Hay, Mr. Warner, Mrs. Hunt, Mr. C.W. Stoddard, Mark Twain, and many others whose names will not come to me at the moment, have in their several ways richly contributed to our pleasure in it; but I cannot now fancy a young author finding favor with an editor in a sketch of travel, or a study of foreign manners and customs; his work would have to be of the most signal importance and brilliancy to overcome the editor's feeling that the thing had been done already; and I believe that a publisher if offered a book of such things, would look at it askance, and plead the well-known quiet of the trade. Still, I may be mistaken.

I am rather more confident about the decline of another literary species, namely, the light essay. We have essays enough and to spare, of certain soberer and severer sorts, such as grapple with problems and deal with conditions; but the kind I mean, the slightly humorous, gentle, refined, and humane kind, seems no longer to abound as it once did. I do not know whether the editor discourages them, knowing his readers' frame, or whether they do not offer themselves, but I seldom find them in the magazines. I certainly do not believe that if anyone were now to write essays such as Mr. Warner's "Backlog Studies," an editor would refuse them; and perhaps nobody really writes them. Nobody seems to write the sort that Colonel Higginson formerly contributed to the periodicals, or such as Emerson wrote. Without a great name behind it, I am afraid that a volume of essays would find few buyers, even after the essays had made a public in the magazines. There are, of course, instances to the contrary, but they are not so many or so striking as to make me think that the essay could not be offered as a good opening for business talent.

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The Man of Letters as a Man of Business
William Dean Howells

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