Arthur Koestlers recent
article in Tribune set me wondering whether the book racket will start up again in
its old vigour after the war, when paper is plentiful and there are other things to spend
your money on.
Publishers have got to live, like anyone else, and you cannot blame
them for advertising their wares, but the truly shameful feature of literary life before
the war was the blurring of the distinction between advertisement and criticism. A number
of the so-called reviewers, and especially the best-known ones, were simply blurb writers.
The screaming advertisement started some time in the nineteen-twenties, and as
the competition to take up as much space and use as many superlatives as possible became
fiercer, publishers advertisements grew to be an important source of revenue to a
number of papers. The literary pages of several well-known papers were practically owned
by a handful of publishers, who had their quislings planted in all the important jobs.
These wretches churned forth their praise masterpiece,
brilliant, unforgettable and so forth like so many
mechanical pianos. A book coming from the right publishers could be absolutely certain not
only of favourable reviews, but of being placed on the recommended list which
industrious book borrowers would cut out and take to the library the next day.
If you published books at several different houses you soon learned how
strong the pressure of advertisement was. A book coming from a big publisher, who
habitually spent large sums on advertisement, might get fifty or seventy-five reviews: a
book from a small publisher might get only twenty. I knew of one case where a theological
publisher, for some reason, took it into his head to publish a novel. He spent a great
deal of money on advertising it. It got exactly four reviews in the whole of England, and
the only full-length one was in a motoring paper, which seized the opportunity to point
out that the part of the country described in the novel would be a good place for a
motoring tour. This man was not in the racket, his advertisements were not likely to
become a regular source of revenue to the literary papers, and so they just ignored him.
Even reputable literary papers could not afford to disregard their
advertisers altogether. It was quite usual to send a book to a reviewer with some such
formula as, Review this book if it seems any good. If not, send it back. We
dont think its worthwhile to print simply damning reviews.
Naturally, a person to whom the guinea or so that he gets for the
review means next weeks rent is not going to send the book back. He can be counted
on to find something to praise, whatever his private opinion of the book may be.
In America even the pretence that hack reviewers read the books they
are paid to criticize has been partially abandoned. Publishers, or some publishers, send
out with review copies a short synopsis telling the reviewer what to say. Once, in the
case of a novel of my own, they mis-spelt the name of one of the characters. The same
mis-spelling turned up in review after review. The so-called critics had not even glanced
into the book which, nevertheless, most of them were boosting to the skies.
A phrase much used in political circles in this country is playing into the hands
of. It is a sort of charm or incantation to silence uncomfortable truths. When you
are told that by saying this, that or the other you are playing into the hands
of some sinister enemy, you know that it is your duty to shut up immediately.
For example, if you say anything damaging about British imperialism,
you are playing into the hands of Dr Goebbels.
If you criticize Stalin you are
playing into the hands of the Tablet and the Daily Telegraph. If you
criticize Chiang Kai-Shek you
are playing into the hands of Wang Ching-Wei and so on, indefinitely.
Objectively this charge is often true. It is always difficult to attack
one party to a dispute without temporarily helping the other. Some of Gandhis remarks have been
very useful to the Japanese. The extreme Tories
will seize on anything anti-Russian, and dont necessarily mind if it comes from Trotskyist instead of right-wing
sources. The American imperialists, advancing to the attack behind a smoke-screen of
novelists, are always on the look-out for any disreputable detail about the British Empire. And if you
write anything truthful about the London slums, you are liable to hear it repeated on the
Nazi radio a week later. But what, then, are you expected to do? Pretend there are no
Everyone who has ever had anything to do with publicity or propaganda
can think of occasions when he was urged to tell lies about some vitally important matter,
because to tell the truth would give ammunition to the enemy. During the Spanish Civil War, for
instance, the dissensions on the Government side were never properly thrashed out in the
left-wing press, although they involved fundamental points of principle. To discuss the
struggle between the Communists
and the Anarchists, you were
told, would simply give the Daily Mail the chance to say that the Reds were all
murdering one another. The only result was that the left-wing cause as a whole was
weakened. The Daily Mail may have missed a few horror stories because people held
their tongues, but some all-important lessons were not learned, and we are suffering from
the fact to this day.