Wednesday, August 10, 2005

C.E. Vulliamy: Prodwit's Guide to Writing

A few weeks ago, while trawling through an old-fashioned secondhand bookshop, I came across an old-fashioned book: Prodwit's Guide to Writing. Ever eager for illumination and improvement, I bought it.

The author's name, C.E. Vulliamy, seemed familiar to me, but, having studied the list of his published works, I can't say that I remember reading any of them. However, he wrote a number of novels, as well as many non-fiction books, and some of his fiction took the form of detective stories, so maybe I have.

Vulliamy, who was active chiefly around the middle of the twentieth century, seems to have been an all-round man of letters. He wrote biographies of Voltaire, John Wesley, Mrs Thrale (aka Mrs Piozzi), Byron, and others. He produced two volumes of autobiography. He also wrote at least six books which his publisher categorises as satire; and some of his fiction is also said to satirise British society.

In short, he seems to have been a man with a well-developed sense of the ridiculous. And that -- or at the very least a sense of humour -- is an essential attribute for anyone who is trying to make a career in the book world.

Prodwit's Guide to Writing falls firmly within Vulliamy's satirical output. His publisher describes it as 'a rollicking satire'. However, the publisher adds, 'many of Prodwit's observations are exceedingly just, and an appreciable amount of his advice is of genuine value.'

First published in 1949, Prodwit's Guide purports to be the work of the late Giles Bendigo Prodwit, as edited by Mr Vulliamy himself. In addition to the normal editorial work, Mr Vulliamy tells us that he has felt bound to introduce some comments on Prodwit's wilder assertions.

In short, the Guide is what used to be called a 'conceit', which the Oxford dictionary defines as 'an elaborate metaphor or artistic effect', but which I usually think of as an extended joke.

When I tell you that this book extends to 164 pages, you may suspect that the joke might wear a bit thin before the end. And so it does; but the world was a different place (in some respects) in 1949, and I dare say it amused a few people then. Certainly the book seems to have sold tolerably well: there are still plenty of copies available on the secondhand market, and that isn't true of everything published at that time.

I'm sure that Vulliamy's main reason for writing the book was that it allowed him to say exactly what he thought of the book world without incurring the sort of wrath that would result if he had written a direct and controversial attack on the good and the great. And, despite the good-clean-fun approach, it is pretty clear that he had a fairly low opinion of how certain aspects of the post-war book trade were conducted.

What does Prodwit have to say which might conceivably interest us today? Well, for a start he says that 'writing is a trade which requires little previous knowledge.... It is much easier to become a successful writer than it is to become, say, a successful plumber.'

Prodwit hold this view because his experience has proved to him that it is possible to build a career as a writer very largely by stealing other people's work and claiming it as your own.

He argues that one essential piece of equipment for would-be writers is a library of the complete works of Standard Authors -- the important point being that these authors should be safely dead and out of copyright. The adroit and intelligent use of other men's work, says Prodwit, 'leads to public applause and adequate remuneration.' This is the system 'upon which the overwhelming majority of writers have established their renown.'

And so on.

Also amusing, nearly sixty years after they were written, are Vulliamy/Prodwit's assertions that 'the sale of a novel was never more uncertain than it is today', and that far too many novels are being published. This, mark you, was his opinion at a time when the number of books published in the UK in a year was somewhere around 10% of today's figure.

Prodwit ploughs his way through 23 chapters in all: How to write history, poetry, biography, travel, and so forth. On your relationship with your publisher, Prodwit's advice is that you should 'ring him up as often as possible. Remember, he has very little to do in his office, and he will certainly appreciate your friendly attention.'

Recalling my own recent essay on reviewers, I had a look at what Prodwit has to say about them. 'You can have no idea,' says Prodwit, 'without experience behind the scenes, of the intimacy and intricacy of this muddy business.... Friends caress and enemies batter each other continually by means of literary reviews, and entire cliques are thus organised for offence or defence.'

Balzac said much the same thing a hundred years earlier. And, bearing in mind what the Washington Post has to say about its own recent review of John Irving's new book, it is painfully apparent that, in the last 56 years, nothing much has changed. It was ever thus, and it ever will be.


Andrew said...

Horrors--I knew something (Irving/Rushdie) that the Post didn't? What's amusing is I don't see anyone stepping to the plate to do the replacement review. I'm sure it will come and be (ahem) quite balanced.

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