“Is Cheap Literature Cheapening Literature?”

Publishers lowering the price of books so that people of modest means could afford them. Publishers flooding the market with low-priced, badly written books, devaluing the literature put out by great artists. Great artists who write to create art are being supplanted by hacks churning out glurge.

No, this isn’t the Authors Guild raging against Amazon. It’s not even Bennett Cerf raging against paperback publishers in the 1950s publishing Mickey Spillane. This is 1900, at a meeting of the Nineteenth Century Club at the Waldorf-Astoria, and Professor H. Thurston Peck of the magazine Bookman and journalist muckraker and publisher S.S. McClure is duking it out in the pages of Catholic World Magazine: “Is Cheap Literature Cheapening Literature.”

Personally, I wouldn’t want to get into a fight between these two dudes.

cheap literature

McClure and Professor Peck, about to discuss literature.

Oh, and there’s a cameo by writer and translator Isabel F. Hapgood speaking on behalf o the children.

“Is Cheap Literature Cheapening Literature?” was discussed not long ago by Professor H. Thurston Peck, of Columbia University, editor of the Bookman, and S. S. McClure, at the meeting of the Nineteenth Century Club at the Waldorf-Astoria. Mr. McClure spoke from the publisher’s point or view. Professor Peck’s views were those of the literary man.

Professor Peck maintained that cheap literature not only cheapened literature, but also the reading public and the literary worker. In other times books were expensive; people thought seriously about a book before they bought it. People who read were fewer in number, but they were more discriminating. The man of many books was a rarity. The man of a few books is a rarity to-day. The man of many books is a nuisance. Every one writes nowadays. Pens, ink, and stationery are all that is required. Publishers will take “flyers” as experiments. Stories are syndicated, published in cheap magazines and in paper editions. Successful authors write at least three books a year unless they are very lazy, and this because they all are bribed by the publishers’ big prices. Writers cheapen literature by looking down at the pygmies instead of up at the immortals, and as a result write a little worse each day. Readers cheapen literature by reading Hall Caine instead of Trollope or Thackeray. Too much is read and too much is written. The popular superstition of the day is that one must keep up with the new books. When a man despairs of doing this he takes to book reviews, finally falls to literary notes, and after that of course reads no literature at all. In the old days it was different. Literary men didn’t write because their books had a vogue. They treated their work seriously. It was an art as well as a profession, and they put their heart and soul into it. They were not grasping. Gibbon took twelve years to write the first volume of his history, and twenty-four years to complete the series. Tennyson made notes for The Idylls of the King as long ago as 1833. Three years at least elapsed between the appearance of each of Thackeray’s novels. What the reading public wants and what the money-ridden authors need is a race of vigorous critics, men of courage. audacity, wit, satire, and knowledge, who would not give pallid appreciations of books but would scourge writers to a sense of responsibility by criticisms that would smash, blister, excoriate, and draw blood!

Mr. Taylor, president of the club, addressed a few remarks to the audience when Professor Peck had finished his dissertation. Mr. Taylor said that the club always liked to hear both sides of a question, and before those who were inspired by Professor Peck went home to sell their libraries to the junk-shops the speaker for the negative would present the other side of the case.

S. S. McClure, the well-known publisher, traced the history of cheap literature in this country, which began forty years ago, when English standard fiction was sold for a dime a volume, to the time when the passage of the International Copyright law brought about a standard American literature. Answering Professor Peck’s appeal for a race of vigorous critics, Mr. McClure declared that there was no use under heaven for the critic. The man who bought the book was the real critic, and so discriminating was he that a publisher could not sell a poor book. In saying this, Mr. McClure declared, he spoke from experience. As for the modern reader spending too much time in trying to keep abreast of the multitudinous literature of the day, Mr. McClure said the people of this country spent on the average only two cents a week on literature. Proceeding to controvert the first speaker’s assertion that authors of this generation gave way to the temptation of doing profitable rather than high-class work. Mr. McClure referred to such men as George Meredith, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, J.M. Barrie. and others, and asked if they could be tempted. Cheap literature, he maintained, brought the standard and classic works into every home, and was thereby the means of fostering the taste for good literature rather than cheapening it.

Isabel HapgoodMiss Isabel F. Hapgood spoke of the spoiling influence upon young minds of cheap and trashy novels. In spite of the experience claimed by Mr. McClure, there is a low-grade publisher abroad whose books and periodicals are offensively cheap and nasty. Would that they could be banished from the market!