Sunday, January 10, 2010

Journalism Recipe from James Barrie

When a young H.G. Wells was recovering from tuberculosis, he considered what jobs were possible during his convalescence. His options were severely limited: he scarcely had the strength to sit up in bed. He determined to give journalism a try. But what to write?

At this point Wells had the good fortune of reading James Barrie's When a Man is Single, a short novel about a fledgling journalist named Rob Angus, who comes to London (after earlier chapters have set up the obligatory romantic complications) and asks advice of a experienced journalist named Rorrison. Within this advice from Rorrison, Barrie embedded a concise recipe for selling "fillers", the quarter- and half-column pieces for the morning and evening newspapers. Wells took this recipe as a guide and began writing fillers that he successfully marketed to the Pall Mall Gazette. He graduated to half-page pieces called "single sitting shorts." (This name makes me think of disposable underwear.) Wells's writing career was launched.

I tracked down Barrie's recipe in Chapter 8 of When a Man is Single. Here are the relevant excerpts:

There was only one journalist in London whom he [Rob] knew even by name, and he wrote to him for advice. This was Mr. John Rorrison, a son of the minister whose assistance had brought Rob to Silchester. Rorrison was understood to be practically editing a great London newspaper, which is what is understood of a great many journalists until you make inquiries, but he wrote back to Rob asking him why he wanted to die before his time. You collectors who want an editor's autograph may rely upon having it by return of post if you write threatening to come to London with the hope that he will do something for you.

[. . . .]

Rorrison had chambers at the top of one of the Inns of Court, and as he had sported his oak, Rob ought not to have knocked. He knew no better, however, and Rorrison came grumbling to the door. He was a full-bodied man of middle-age, with a noticeably heavy chin, and wore a long dressing-gown.

"I'm Angus from Silchester," Rob explained.

Rorrison's countenance fell. His occupation largely consisted in avoiding literary young men, who, he knew, were thirsting to take him aside and ask him to get them sub-editorships.

[. . . .]

Rorrison: "There are only about a dozen papers in London that are worth writing for, but I can give you a good account of them. Not only do they pay handsomely, but the majority are open to contributions from any one. Don't you believe what one reads about newspaper rings. Everything sent in is looked at, and if it is suitable any editor is glad to have it. Men fail to get a footing on the press because –- well, as a rule, because they are stupid."

"I am glad to hear you say that," said Rob, "and yet I had thirty articles rejected before the Minotaur accepted that one."

"Yes, and you will have another thirty rejected if they are of the same kind. You beginners seem able to write nothing but your views on politics, and your reflections on art, and your theories of life, which you sometimes even think original. Editors won't have that, because their readers don't want it. Every paper has its regular staff of leader-writers, and what is wanted from the outside is freshness."

[. . . .]

Rorrison: "They should write of the things they have seen. Newspaper readers have an insatiable appetite for knowing how that part of the world lives with which they are not familiar. They want to know how the Norwegians cook their dinners and build their houses ask each other in marriage."

"But I have never been out of Britain."

"Neither was Shakespeare. There are thousands of articles in Scotland yet. You must know a good deal about the Scottish weavers –- well, there are articles in them. Describe the daily life of a gillie: 'The Gillie at Home' is a promising title. Were you ever snowed-up in your saw-mill? Whether you were or not, there is a seasonable subject for January. 'Yule in a Scottish Village' also sounds well, and there is a safe article in a Highland gathering."

"These must have been done before, though," said Rob.

"Of course they have," answered Rorrison; "but do them in your own way: the public has no memory, and besides, new publics are always springing up."

"I am glad I came to see you," said Rob, brightening considerably; "I never thought of these things."

"Of course you need not confine yourself to them. Write on politics if you will, but don't merely say what you yourself think; rather tell, for instance, what is the political situation in the country parts known to you. That should be more interesting and valuable than your individual views. But I may tell you that, if you have the journalistic faculty, you will always be on the lookout for possible articles. The man on this stair I have mentioned to you would have had an article out of you before he had talked with you as long as I have done. You must have heard of Noble Simms?"

"Yes, I know his novel," said Rob; "I should like immensely to meet him."

"I must leave you an introduction to him" said Rorrison; "he wakens most people up, though you would scarcely think it to look at him. You see this pipe here? Simms saw me mending it with sealing-wax one day, and two days afterwards there was an article about it in the Scalping Knife. When I went off for my holidays last summer I asked him to look in here occasionally and turn a new cheese which had been sent me from the country. Of course he forgot to do it, but I denounced him on my return for not keeping his solemn promise, so he revenged himself by publishing an article entitled 'Rorrison's Oil-Painting.' In this it was explained that just before Rorrison went off for a holiday he got a present of an oil-painting. Remembering when he had go to Paris that the painting, which had come to him wet from the easel, had been left lying on his table, he telegraphed to the writer to have it put away out of reach of dust and the cat. The writer promised to do so, but when Rorrison returned he round the picture lying just where he left it. He rushed off to his friend's room to upbraid him, and did it so effectually that the friend says in his article, 'I will never do a good turn for Rorrison again!'"

"But why," asked Rob, "did he turn the cheese into an oil-painting?"

"Ah, there you have the journalistic instinct again. You see a cheese is too plebeian a thing to form the subject an article in the Scalping Knife, so Simms made a painting of it."

[. . . .]

Rorrison: "Then there was the box of old clothes and other odds and ends that he [Simms] promised to store for me when I changed my rooms. He sold the lot to a hawker for a pair of flower-pots, and wrote an article on the transaction. Subsequently he had another article on the flower-pots; and when I appeared to claim my belongings he got a third article out of that."

"I suppose he reads a great deal?" said Rob.

"He seldom opens a book," answered Rorrison; "indeed, when he requires to consult a work of reference he goes to the Strand and does his reading at a bookstall. I don't think he was ever in the British Museum."

Fortified by Barrie's journalistic recipe from a century ago, I will seek out articles from daily life as I find it. But as this is a plebeian blog, I will not feel pressured to turn cheeses into oil-paintings.

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