Sunday, May 20, 2018

BOOK: Guy and Small, "Oscar Wilde's Profession"

Josephine M. Guy and Ian Small: Oscar Wilde's Profession: Writing and the Culture Industry in the Late Nineteenth Century. Oxford University Press, 2000. 0198187289. x + 314 pp.

As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, my interest in Wilde mostly started as a result of my reading the Picture of Dorian Gray. One of the things that fascinated me most about it were the bold, delightfully outrageous ideas about art that Wilde promoted in that book, especially in its famous preface. It had many fine sentiments about art for art's sake, the creation of beautiful but useless things, and so on. Those are perhaps not very practical concepts, but I found them highly admirable.

I felt, as every sensible person must, that having to take other people's preferences and wishes into account when doing something is unpleasant, inconvenient, constraining and annoying; and yet, of course, this is precisely what the world around us tends to try to pressure us into doing all the damn time. Wilde's ideas were like a breath of fresh air to me: what could be more charming and admirable than the idea of an artist doing whatever the hell delights him, because it delights him, while treating the opinions of the masses with well-deserved olympian contempt!

And thus Wilde's work has always remained strongly associated with these ideas in my mind; for me, reading him has always had an element of escapism: his work reminded me of the beautiful idea of doing something because you like it, and not because somebody else wants it or needs it. It is not something that me or most other people could normally do, but at least it's pleasant to fantasize about it as a hypothetical possibility — or perhaps a reality for someone like Wilde.

In fact I always vaguely imagined, without really paying all that much attention to the details of Wilde's life, that he sort of embodied this ideal — that he walked the walk, not just talked the talk. The very amount of his writings seems to support this idea: he clearly wasn't the sort of writer who gets up at 6 o'clock every morning and churns out half a dozen pages before breakfast, publishes one new novel every year, etc. If he did, you wouldn't be able to fit his collected works into one volume, as many editions of Wilde do. And there's the diversity of genres: he wrote a bit of poetry, some short stories, a short novel, plays of various kinds, critical essays — you can easily imagine him as a kind of ingenious dabbler who flits from genre to genre as the mood strikes him, nibbles on each thing for a while and then moves to something else again according to where his fancy directs him.

I suppose that, if I had bothered to think about this a bit more soberly (though where's the fun in that?), I should have realized that this view of Wilde and his work must be somewhat unrealistic. But what this fascinating book, Oscar Wilde's Profession, does is demonstrate very clearly just how unrealistic this view of mine was. This book is basically a view of Wilde's career as a writer from a ‘materialist’ perspective.

This is, I guess, not usually something that one thinks much about as a reader; for me as a reader, the only touch with the materialist aspect of literature is when I have to pay for the book that I want to buy. But you are vaguely aware that behind this, literature is also a profession, a trade, a business for many people — writers, publishers, booksellers and so on; people who have to plan incomes and expenditures, think about marketing and advertising, draw up and sign contracts with each other, and so on. And these people can't afford to think of literature as art for art's sake, and before they publish anything they want to have a good idea of who is going to buy it and whether it will make them any money or not.

In fact, I suspect that nowadays we are more aware of these aspects of literature than would be the case in the past. Many professional writers have blogs where you can often catch a glimpse of the business aspects of a writer's career.

But I didn't use to think of Wilde as that kind of writer — the professional kind of writer that pays careful attention to the business aspects of his work. However, as this book demonstrates, he very much was that kind of writer, and in fact couldn't afford not to be. There did of course exist ways in which a writer could insulate himself a little from the demands of the market; you could be independently wealthy (but Wilde wasn't, or certainly not wealthy enough) or try to combine literature with a stable and respectable job such as being a professor or a civil servant (Wilde tried entering both of these careers but without success; pp. 24–5). Thus, if he wanted to be a writer, he had to be the sort of writer whose work sells well enough that he could live off its profits.

To a considerable extent, the image he presented to the public, of an artist-with-a-capital-A leisurely creating art-for-art's-sake for a small but distinguished audience, was just that — an image, an illusion deliberately projected for the sake of branding and marketing. It's not that he didn't want to be that sort of writer; he did, but most of the time he just couldn't afford to be.

Thus in this book, we see Wilde's efforts at self-promotion and advertisement, his dealings with publishers, his efforts to find additional ways to sell and market his work; we see what sort of contracts he was signing and what sort of money he was making from them. As he flits from genre to genre, from publisher to publisher, the only constant thing is the never-ending need for money and for finding ways of making his writing more profitable.

For example, he often tried to find ways of selling the same material multiple times, e.g. by expanding some of his magazine articles about criticism and publishing them in a book, Intentions; or by first publishing the Picture of Dorian Gray in a magazine and later again as a book, with a bit of additional material (p. 59). This latter plan didn't work out too well, as it turns out: relatively few people wanted to buy the book, since most had already read the novel in the magazine, which was also much cheaper than the book (p. 57).

Some of his best-known works nowadays are his comedies, but judging by this book it seems that Wilde largely went into writing comedies for the sake of money; writing plays, especially ones that would be performed in a theatre (as opposed to just being intended for reading), wasn't his natural preference, nor something that he could do easily and effortlessly. But he realized that he could make much more money from having a reasonably successful play performed in theatres than he could from his articles and books (see e.g. p. 75).

In fact his income from the theatre in the 1890s enabled him, perhaps for the first time in his life, to stop worrying about how well his books were selling, and on whether they would appeal to a sufficiently large part of the public or not. He could now afford to have his books published in precious limited editions by the Bodley Head, where they more often than not turned a decent profit by appealing to a small but wealthy market of connoisseurs and book collectors (p. 142).

There's an interesting discussion in ch. 5 of how this trend came about in the first place. It started with the idea that certain valuable and exclusive works of art naturally fail to appeal to the masses but are instead appreciated only by a small circle of sufficiently sophisticated people (pp. 138–40). From this it was only a small step to what is really the opposite idea, namely that a book must be an important work of art simply because it appeals only to a small elite — even if this elite-only appeal was in reality caused by the deliberate decision to publish the book in an expensive limited edition (pp. 141–4, 177). This shift was achieved by marketing from clever publishers such as Lane and Mathews from the Bodley Head. At the same time there were others who decried this trend and correctly recognized it as a cynical marketing ploy (p. 144).

Wilde deliberately encouraged this trend, and you can see letters from him to his publishers, demanding that his books must be more expensive and thus more exclusive (p. 145); or suggesting that they put fewer lines of verse on each page of The Sphinx to pad out the book a little (p. 153) — because he, along with the publishers, was being a bit greedy and wanted to make an entire book out of a poem that's less than 200 lines long. (The same problem recurred a few years later with The Ballad of Reading Gaol; the publisher eventually solved it by printing on one side only, p. 190. And The Happy Prince was “set in large type with wide margins; the format could have been designed with the child reader in mind, but it had the serendipitous effect of padding out a small amount of text to fill 116 pages.” P. 231.)

An interesting if somewhat surprising thing that I learnt from this book is that much of Wilde's work was, at his time, relatively unsuccessful, in commercial as well as in critical terms. The reason why this surprised me is that he strikes me as being so much more popular and better known nowadays than many of his contemporaries, who however turn out to have been more successful than he in his own day. His poems were published in middlebrow magazines and when collected in a book (Poems, 1881) were recognized as poor derivatives of Rosetti, Swinburne and other established poets. He tried his hand at drama and wrote two plays, Vera and The Duchess of Padua, that basically flopped, and he had great trouble finding anyone that would want to produce them in the first place. Then his book of critical essays, Intentions, sold far less well than similar books by critics such as Pater and Arnold (pp. 62, 73). One of his books of fairy-tales was a moderate success (The Happy Prince; but its sales were tiny compared to bestsellers of the genre, p. 55), the other (House of Pomegranates) was a failure, seemingly because its efforts to appeal to a grown-up audience just managed to confuse the readers (pp. 63, 76, 82). The Picture of Dorian Gray was a hit in the magazine where it was first published, but as a book it enjoyed decidedly sluggish sales. Even his comedies, the most commercially successful part of his work, weren't nearly as popular as those of some other contemporary playwrighs (e.g. one Henry Arthur Jones, about whom I never heard before; p. 111). (That doesn't mean that he didn't make good money from the theatre, of course. But that income was uneven, and he was careless in spending his money, so even the early 1890s were not an entirely prosperous time for him. Pp. 134, 179.)

He often had a hard time getting himself to finish a book (see e.g. p. 188), especially if he hadn't yet managed to sell it to a publisher (or producer, in the case of plays); this is also the reason why he never finished several of his plays and scenarios.

There's an interesting chapter about Wilde's career in the post-prison years. That part of his career is often seen as a bit shabby; he promised to write various books and plays which he then failed to complete (or even to start), sometimes even selling the same thing to several publishers in ways which are hard to see as anything other than fraudulent. But the authors argue that this was not so much due to any fundamental change in Wilde as such (the focus on money and the difficulty of finishing his book projects were already present in his earlier years; p. 188), it's just that he wasn't able to market his work like he could before prison: his works used to be marketed to a large extent on the basis of his name and personality, and this very fact made them unsellable in his post-prison years as he was being shunned by society (p. 219). They also point out that the situation looks worse because he died in 1900, leaving all those projects unfinished; but we can't blame him for that, as he couldn't have known that he would die so soon (p. 212).

A well-known feature of Wilde's writing is his tendency to reuse the same ideas, aphorisms, sometimes entire passages in several works; and sometimes to reuse the ideas of other people. Chapter 7 in this book discusses this aspect of Wilde's work and the various responses to it: some critics have accused him of (self-)plagiarism borne out of mere laziness and a lack of creativity; others suggested that he was doing it deliberately as some sort of clever postmodernist joke. But the authors of this book argue that this might have been mostly a result of the way Wilde's mind worked: “It's as if Wilde's very creativity itself was manifest via the composition of small, discrete units” (p. 245). He could then use, re-use, rearrange etc. them in various ways; and the same would apply to other people's ideas: entire books that he had read (and which would influence him) had distilled themselves in his mind down to a single aphorism. Coming up with witty epigrams came easy to him; but what he always found difficult was writing a longer story or argument (pp. 245, 258). He was aware of this and was quite willing to collaborate with other people who had more experience in such things (pp. 249, 254).


A note on p. 20 mentions the following very funny reply of the poet A. E. Housman when they wanted to include his poetry in an anthology of 1890s verse: “Mr Symons . . . may be consoled, and also amused, if you tell him that to include me in an anthology of the Nineties would be just as technically correct, and just as essentially inappropriate, as to include Lot in a book on the Sodomites.”

P. 73 mentions an interesting classification of “the British book-buying public”, based on an 1892 article from The Bookman: “ ‘clergymen’, ‘doctors’, ‘lawyers’, ‘men of leisure’, ‘women of culture’, and ‘a very large class of readers whose purchasing powers never rise beyond a novel with which to while away an idle hour [. . .]’ ”. The authors point out that Wilde's work didn't really manage to reach any of these groups all that well (p. 74).

Here's a passage from one of Wilde's letters to Leonard Smithers, his publisher, proving that Wilde could still turn out a fine epigram in his later years: “The public is largely influenced by the look of a book. So are we all. It is the only artistic thing about the public.” (P. 193.)

I always suspected that preparing the new Oxford edition of Wilde's collected works must take a huge amount of effort. Here we have another indication of this: the appendix on p. 286 mentions that “A full scholarly edition of Wilde's Journalism is currently being prepared by Russell Jackson and John Stokes for the Oxford English Texts Edition of Wilde's Complete Works.” This must have been written no latter than 2000 (when Oscar Wilde's Profession was published); incidentally, the first volume of the OET Complete Works of Wilde was published in the same year; and Wilde's journalism was finally published as vols. 6 and 7 in 2013, so it was in preparation for 13 years or more.


  • Melissa Knox: Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide. London, 1994. (Mentioned here on p. 4, n. 12; described by the publisher as “the first full-length psychoanalytic biography of Oscar Wilde”.)
  • Stuart Mason: Oscar Wilde: Art and Morality: A Defence of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. London: J. Jacobs, 1908. (Mentioned here on p. 57, n. 16.)
  • John Stokes: Oscar Wilde: Myths, Miracles, and Imitations. Cambridge UP, 1996. (Mentioned here on p. 245, n. 39.)

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