The November 8 New Yorker has a huge article on Claude Fredericks, poet, printer and professor and author of a journal of 50,000 pages. It included this aside:
“Other hypertrophied diaries exist, but those have generally gained renown as works of outsider art. Robert Shields, a minister, a high-school teacher, and a hobby poet in Dayton, Washington, documented his every activity, at five-minute intervals, for twenty-five years, leaving behind a diary estimated to contain some thirty-seven million words. Another Sunday poet, Arthur Crew Inman—a wealthy eccentric who lived as a shut-in in Boston’s Back Bay, and hired working-class “talkers” to sit for interviews in his bedroom, so that he could subject them to analysis—compiled a diary of seventeen million words.”
If you like the idea of someone documenting their life every 5 minutes (and I can see that applying to many of you) or writing a diary of seventeen million words, those links above are worth following.
”…Fredericks extolls the journal as a special form. Because its author can reflect solely on what’s already happened, the narrative is perpetually in medias res—a “peculiar quality” in a literary work. Moreover, because the author doesn’t know while writing how his dilemmas will be resolved, the resulting narrative captures better than a novel “how complex experience actually is.” Fredericks goes on, “What I’d like to propose is that . . . we now are no longer content with the conventions of fiction, that the whole idea of character and plot . . . no longer seems to be true.” Three decades before the rise of autofiction—novels that appear to hew to an author’s lived experience, largely dispensing with the artifices of fiction—Fredericks is calling for something similar.”
Fredericks, I’d suggest, is calling for LiveJournal. Or TikTok.
The previous week’s issue asked “Is Amazon changing the novel?” and it’s worth reading. But, again, the preliminary hoo-hah includes some lovely bits. Including discussion of the ‘the triple-decker’.
“George Gissing’s 1891 novel, “New Grub Street,” is one of the most pitiless portraits of the writing life in any age. Set among London’s hacks, grinds, and literary “women of the inkiest description,” the story follows Edwin Reardon’s nervous and financial collapse as he struggles to complete a book that might sell. His friend, the sleek and cynical Jasper Milvain, regards his efforts as so much unnecessary fuss. “Literature nowadays is a trade,” Milvain maintains, a matter of deft pandering. Find out what the reader wants and supply it, for God’s sake, with style and efficiency.
It’s not just the writer’s usual demons—skimpy word rates, self-doubt, the smooth ascension of one’s enemies—that torture Reardon but the strictures of the three-volume frigate that dominated Victorian novel-writing. The triple-decker, as it was called, was the form of much work by the likes of Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Benjamin Disraeli, and Anthony Trollope: typically nine hundred octavo pages divided into volumes of three hundred pages each, handsomely printed and bound. “The three volumes lie before me like an interminable desert,” Reardon moans. “Impossible to get through them.” Gissing lifted such laments from his own diary; “New Grub Street” was itself a triple-decker, Gissing’s eighth, and he used every available trick to stretch it, wheezily, to length. “The padding trade,” Trollope called literature at the time.
As luxury items, unaffordable for outright purchase by most readers, triple-deckers were championed by Mudie’s Select Library, a behemoth of British book distribution. For its founder, Charles Edward Mudie, who often bought the bulk of a print run and could demand commensurate discounts from publishers, the appeal was plain: since his subscribers—at least those paying the standard rate of a guinea a year—could borrow only one volume at a time, each triple-decker could circulate to three times as many subscribers. Publishers were equally fond of the form, which allowed them to stagger printing costs. A tantalizing first volume could drum up demand for subsequent volumes, and help pay for them.
A great many of the Victorian novel’s distinctive features seem expressly designed to fill up that “interminable desert” and entice the reader to cross it: a three-act structure, swelling subplots and vast casts, jolting cliffhangers, and characters with catchphrases or names that signal their personalities, rendering them memorable across nine hundred pages. (Dickens’s naming a bounder Bounderby, in “Hard Times,” is one shameless example.) Fictional autobiographies and biographies—“Villette,” “Jane Eyre,” “Adam Bede”—worked well with the demands of the triple-decker; a life story could enfold any necessary digressions and impart to them a sense of narrative unity.”
I love the way that something revered as the purest form of literature was so informed by commercial practicalities.
Also, someone should start a newsletter about those AI tools which promise to do all your copywriting for you. They should call it The Padding Trade.
You know what? You’ve read enough. I will disgorge more New Yorker next month. In the meantime, relentless self-promotion: