The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence. Obvious though this should be, how few writers will admit it, or having drawn the conclusion, will be prepared to lay aside the piece of iridescent mediocrity on which they have embarked! Writers always hope that their next book is going to be their best, and will not acknowledge that they are prevented by their present way of life from ever creating anything different.
Every excursion into journalism, broadcasting, propaganda and writing for the films, however grandiose, will be doomed to disappointment. To put our best into these is another folly, since thereby we condemn good ideas as well as bad to oblivion. It is in the nature of such work not to last, and it should never be undertaken . Writers engrossed in any literary task which is not an assault on perfection are their own dupes and, unless these self-flatterers are content to dismiss such activity as their contribution to the war effort, they might as well be peeling potatoes.
From Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” (1891), collected in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes
He had stood behind that tree during the interview between the father and son. He had even smoked there. I found the ash of a cigar, which my special knowledge of tobacco ashes enabled me to pronounce as an Indian cigar. I have, as you know, devoted some attention to this, and written a little monograph on the ashes of 140 different varieties of pipe, cigar, and cigarette tobacco.
From Herman Melville’s "Bartleby the Scrivener" (1853), collected in The Piazza Tales
At first Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light. I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically.
. . . .
[Several days later] I noticed that Bartleby did nothing but stand at his window in his dead-wall revery. Upon asking him why he did not write, he said that he had decided upon doing no more writing.
“Why, how now? what next?” exclaimed I, “do no more writing?”
“And what is the reason?”
“Do you not see the reason for yourself?” he indifferently replied.
From Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave (1951)
The goal of every culture is to decay through overcivilization; the factors of decadence, luxury, skepticism, weariness, and superstition,—are constant. The civilization of one epoch becomes the manure of the next.
. . . .
Yet to live in a decadence need not make us despair. It is but one technical problem the more which a writer has to solve.
Note 40, by editor Leslie S. Klinger, to Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” (1891), collected in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes
Holmes first mentioned his monograph, without disclosing the actual title, in A Study in Scarlet. He refers to it again in The Sign of Four, giving the full title of his monograph as “Upon the Distinction between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos: An Enumeration of 140 Forms of Cigar, Cigarette, and Pipe Tobacco, with Coloured Plates Illustrating the Difference in the Ash,” and remarks that Francois le Villard of the French detective service was translating the work into his native language.