Monday, February 21, 2011

"A distressing habit of writing books and talking a good deal about them," Or, P. G. Wodehouse on publishing

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Given that the publishing world has spent the past several days rending its tweed jackets and gnashing its nicotine-stained teeth over the bankruptcy of Borders, I think we should start the week with some publishing humor!

Publishing, as an industry that has always taken itself very seriously, tends to lend itself more to tragedy than to comedy. (There's a reason the first printed book wasn't Joey Gutenberg's Big Book of Gut-Busters.) Think of the abattoir that is the remainder table--'nuff said?

But P. G. Wodehouse had the knack of finding comedy in anything, and in A Few Quick Ones (1959), a collection of stories featuring many of his best-loved characters, he gives the industry a few gentle pokes. Here, to start, from "Scratch Man," is his account of a small publisher who's facing the aggrieved (because jilted) fiance of the woman he loves:
His heart, as he gazed at this patently steamed-up colossus, missed not one beat but several. Nor, I think, can we blame him. All publishers are sensitive, highly strung men. Gollancz is. So is Hamish Hamilton. So are Chapman and Hall, Heinemann and Herbert Jenkins, Ltd.
A simple joke, but fun, and later Wodehouse rings a change:
Harold Pickering kissed Troon Rocket sixteen times in quick succession, and Macmillan and Faber and Faber say they would have done just the same.
In another story, "Joy Bells for Walter," he reminds us that, for all the talk about publishing's crucial role in our culture . . . a lot of what the industry turns out is, and has always been, crap:
Mrs Lavender Botts . . . had a distressing habit of writing books and talking a good deal about them. Her works were not novels. I am a broadminded man and can tolerate female novelists, but Mrs Botts gave English literature a bad name by turning out those unpleasant whimsical things to which women of her type are so addicted. My Chums the Pixies was one of her titles, How to Talk to the Flowers another, and Many of My Best Friends Are Field Mice a third. A rumour had got about that she was contemplating a fourth volume on the subject of elves.
She nearly makes Rosie M. Banks's oeuvre seem promising!


  1. My favorite is the prologue/epilogue of "The Coming of Gowf" ( A little too lengthy to quote here, I'm afraid, and perhaps not quite in line with how publishers are feeling at the moment, but certainly classic Wodehouse humor.

  2. I've recently discovered Wodehouse - he's a treasure. One of the stories I read, The Autograph Hunters, has a little bit on the pretensions of authors and some of the grand titles they choose for their books (in the story there's a book called "Pan Wakes"... which the semi-literate student trying to get an autograph from this famous author vaguely remembers as something like "Pancakes", which he tells his friend is not an unreasonable guess given that authors who want to get a book sold these days need a bizarre title...)

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