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XL. who shall fix the value?

In looking over various letters from women who seek employment, and especially literary employment, I find most of them to be tinged with this delusion, that those who produce anything for the market have the right to require somebody to take it, and at a price to be fixed by the maker. It would, no doubt, be very convenient to many of us if this were true — if somebody were provided whose clear duty it was to take the potatoes we raise, or the poems we write, at whatever price we set upon them. We could soon become rich by this process, like a certain tradesman of whom the story used to be told that he would go into his shop and make ten thousand dollars before breakfast by simply marking up the prices of all his goods. The question still remained whether this would increase their value when it came to the actual sale; and so it is plain that young people may go on thinking better and better of their own literary talents, and yet it will not help them one step towards success unless the public takes a similar view. What good does [203] it do, although your poetry seems to you better than Longfellow's and your prose than Holmes's, so long as the community-or the editor, who is merely the purveyor or steward for the community-cannot be led to the same opinion? You can cherish your genius in silence as much as you please; you can be content with the applause of your cousins and your pastor; you can publish your works at your own expense, and wait for posterity to applaud. Any of these things you can do, as many have done before you; but if you wish for a success more stimulating or more lucrative than this, you must comply with the conditions of success: you must find out what the public wants, and then supply it; you must let others, and not yourself, determine the value of your goods.

In the days when the blind Homer recited his lays, or in the medieval times when bards sang from door to door, literature could hardly be said to be on a business foundation; but now, for good or for evil, it is established on that basis, and so far as publication is concerned the laws of business must be accepted. A shoemaker does not make a pair of shoes and bring them to your door, and claim that it is your duty to buy them at his own price, whether you like them or not. It is true that book — peddlers and travelling basket-women come pretty near to taking this attitude, but we all feel [204] justified in resisting it. The young person who writes stories or wishes to write fashionable correspondence constantly maintains this position. These applicants can always furnish unanswerable reasons why it is desirable that their wares should be purchased: they can often say with truth that they are poor ; that they live in a remote village, and would like to see more of the world; that they have a younger brother or sister to educate ; and that they cannot see that what they write is not just as good as a great deal which is published and praised. They agree in laying the whole blame upon the editor or the publisher. He is narrow, he is selfish, he is governed by the smallest of small cliques. How can he have any honorable or justifiable motive for declining compositions of which sister Jane and our excellent neighbor have thought so well? “I always suspected,” said to me once the husband of a lady whose book had just been refused publication by a well-known house--“I always suspected that Mr. w-as a snob, but now I am sure of it.”

The present writer has seen a good deal of the literary trade in all its aspects; and so far as he has seen, there is no business more free from favoritism. The mere fact that it is business and not pleasure puts it on a real basis in this respect. Every publisher, as such, would rather print a successful book by his worst enemy than an unsuccessful one by his [205] dearest friend. It is the same with the editor of magazine or newspaper. The one question for him to determine is whether the book or article really promises to be profitable, and as to this he must rely on his own judgment, for he has nothing else to rely upon. This judgment is very imperfect, and he knows the fact too well; but if he cannot trust himself, he can still less trust the author or the author's friends. Grant that these warm advocates know best the intrinsic worth of the article offered; they do not know the demands of the public, which is what he has to consider. There is not an editor in the world who accepts contributions with reference to his private taste only. “If I were to edit this periodical merely to suit you and me,” said a former editor of the Atlantic Monthly to a friend, “it would be bankrupt in three months.” Even a cook must season her food to suit the taste of the family, not her own; they do not necessarily like garlic because she does. Every good periodical ends by influencing the public taste; but it must begin by conforming to it, at least sufficiently to get readers.

Formerly, when literature was less widely spread than now, young authors were apt to err on the side of excessive humility; it was hard for them to convince themselves that anything they wrote was worthy the dignity of print. No doubt there are [206] still many such instances, but the more common attitude of mind among aspirants seems to me to be the assumption that what they write is already good enough, and that the world owes them a publisher. Of course the blunders often made on the editorial side will play into their hands and help to strengthen this delusion. “Do I not write as well as that? Can anything of mine be worse than this?” They forget that while an editor cannot be infallible, he must behave as if he were so; and must be practically omnipotent, at any rate, within his domain. Rightly or wrongly, he must make the decision, not you or I; he must set the valuation. Our wares are worth only what he can afford to give for them — he or his competitors. If he has no need for them, we must find some way to make then what he will need. Or if that fails, we must establish what was once suggested by Edward Everett Hale — a periodical to be called “The Unfortunates' magazine,” to contain all rejected contributions, all unappreciated courses of lectures, and in general all productions which need a public more than that public apparently needs them.

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