Monday, February 06, 2012

How to Fail in Literature by Andrew Lang

© Century Magazine/Wikimedia Commons
One of the joys of going through eBooks out of copyright and available legally is discovering rare fiction and non-fiction that some of us might not have heard about. These are plain vanilla texts of books, manuscripts, journals, periodicals, and magazines, as well as anthologies and collections of literary works recorded in easy-to-read format. In case you don’t like reading thick eBooks, then you have the option of settling for the smaller variety like essays, speeches, lectures, and short stories. There’s something for everyone online.

Going through one of the many eBook sites, I came across a short and interesting piece by one Andrew Lang who I found was a Scottish poet, novelist, literary critic and, believe it or not, an ardent contributor in the field of anthropology. According to an article at Wikipedia, Lang, who lived from March 1844 to July 1912, was best known as a collector of folk and fairy tales. The Andrew Lang lectures at the University of St. Andrews, the oldest university in Scotland, are 
named after him.

How to Fail in Literature, the article I referred to, was actually a lecture delivered by Lang at the South Kensington Museum, London, in aid of the College for Working Men and Women. The
museum is now known as the Victoria and Albert Museum. Lang expanded his discourse on a career in literature and published a small booklet in 1890. The PDF version on my desktop is 22 pages long. 

Andrew Lang’s address became a sort of literary benchmark for budding writers. As the title suggests, the Scottish writer, tongue firmly in cheek, provides lots of tips on how you can, literally, spoil your chances of a career in literature. He expects you to heed his advice. On the flipside, it can also be taken as a serious guide to how not to fail in literature, if you know what I mean.

While the lecture touches upon all the elements and characteristics of literary writing that are relevant even today, it is out of place in so far as modern technology-driven writing and publishing is concerned.

I have reproduced below some quotes from How to Fail in Literature which I found stimulating and entertaining.

“IT is impossible to prophesy the success of a man of letters from his early promise, his early tastes; as impossible as it is to predict, from her childish grace, the beauty of a woman.”

“THERE is no more frequent cause of failure than doubt and dread; a beginner can scarcely put his heart and strength into a work when he knows how long are the odds against his victory, how difficult it is for a new man to win a hearing, even though all editors and publishers are ever pining for a new man.”

“IT might be wiser to do as M. Guy de Maupassant is rumoured to have done, to write for seven years, and shew your essays to none but a mentor as friendly severe as M. Flaubert. But all men cannot have such mentors, nor can all afford so long an unremunerative apprenticeship. For some the better plan is NOT to linger on the bank, and take tea and good advice, as Keats said, but to plunge at once in mid-stream, and learn swimming of necessity.”

“EDITORS and publishers, these keepers of the gates of success, are not infallible, but their opinion of a beginner's work is far more correct than his own can ever be. They should not depress him quite, but if they are long unanimous in holding him cheap, he is warned, and had better withdraw from the struggle. He is either incompetent, or he has the makings of a Browning. He is a genius born too soon. He may readily calculate the chances in favour of either alternative.”

“STYLE may be good in itself, but inappropriate to the subject. For example, style which may be excellently adapted to a theological essay, may be but ill-suited for a dialogue in a novel.”

“THE young author generally writes because he wants to write, either for money, from vanity, or in mere weariness of empty hours and anxiety to astonish his relations. This is well, he who would fail cannot begin better than by having nothing to say. The less you observe, the less you reflect, the less you put yourself in the paths of adventure and experience, the less you will have to say, and the more impossible will it be to read your work.”

“IMITATION does a double service, it secures the failure of the imitator and also aids that of the unlucky author who is imitated. As soon as a new thing appears in literature, many people hurry off to attempt something of the same sort. It may be a particular trait and accent in poetry, and the public, weary of the mimicries, begins to dislike the original.”

“THE common novels of Governess life, the daughters and granddaughters of Jane Eyre, still run riot among the rejected manuscripts. The lively large family, all very untidy and humorous, all wearing each other's boots and gloves, and making their dresses out of bedroom curtains and marrying rich men, still rushes down the easy descent to failure.”

“WHEN you have done your book, you may play a number of silly tricks with your manuscript. I have already advised you to make only one copy, a rough one, as that secures negligence in your work, and also disgusts an editor or reader. It has another advantage, you may lose your copy altogether, and, as you have not another, no failure can be more complete.”

“MUCH may be done by asking him for “introductions” to a legal advisor editor or publisher. These gentry don't want introductions, they want good books, and very seldom get them. If you behave thus, the man whom you are boring will write to his publisher:

Dear Brown,

A wretched creature, who knows my great aunt, asks me to recommend his rubbish to you. I send it by today's post, and I wish you joy of it.

This kind of introduction will do you excellent service in smoothing the path to failure.”

“AN author can make almost a certainty of disastrous failure, by carrying to some small obscure publisher a work which has been rejected by the best people in the trade. Their rejections all but demonstrate that your book is worthless.”

“A GOOD way of making yourself a dead failure is to go about accusing successful people of plagiarising from books or articles of yours which did not succeed, and, perhaps, were never published at all.”

Source for How to Fail in Literature: Project Gutenberg


  1. You gotta love that. Some hilarious quotes here.

  2. You are so right about discovering new books to us. My favorite source is They spotlight new new books on their web page.

  3. Charles, I did too. This small book is full of funny lines. I chose a few that I thought were funnier.

  4. Mel, I discovered Lang's book at which, if I'm not mistaken, you introduced me to. It is an amazing site. You're right about the Spotlight on the homepage. You get to see two new covers each time you "refresh" the page.

  5. Some topics never grow old... I continue to be amazed by the excellent writing to be found in long forgotten books now available as ebooks. Most of the early-early westerns I'm reading are as entertaining and absorbing as anything on the bestseller lists today. Often better.

  6. Ron, well said! I have gone through hundreds of fine eBooks, including early westerns, comprising short stories, novels, and magazines, many of which I've bookmarked. These forgotten books, apart from being "entertaining and absorbing" as you say, also provide a historical perspective on a forgotten era.