On Writing a Preface

WHEN I finally succeeded in finding a publisher for my book I thought that my troubles were ended. I have a way of thinking that, too soon. The publisher who finally took my manuscript was the third I tried. The morning I saw the first I was practically positive that the business side of my book was settled. I found him sitting at his desk looking at a magazine article on Cottages of the Cotswolds. It gave me a perfect opening; we discovered that we had just missed each other as students at Oxford, and that we held similar views on the merits of ‘The Swan’ at Bibury and ‘The Trout’ at Godstow. At the end of half an hour we got to the business in hand: he expressed interest in the outline which I had sent on ahead, and I left the manuscript and departed with the feeling that our next appointment would be merely for the formalities of contract signing. I was right about that second appointment being short. I was there five minutes. It does n’t take long to put a manuscript back into one’s briefcase.

As soon as I left him I telephoned an acquaintance of mine who is a member of another firm. He said that he had a terrific cold, but would come to tea. As I gave him a spirited account of what was in the book I thought that he brightened. When I finished he said, ‘Do you dow subthing? I was bord to be iderested in this.’ For the life of me I could n’t tell whether he was ‘born’ or ‘bored.’ As things turned out, his cold had enabled him to express in one ambiguous word the attitude of his firm. He was born. The others, and they outnumbered him, were bored.

By the time I came to my third publisher I was extremely suspicious of all the bright young men. I left him the manuscript and Went out of town. Five hours later a messenger handed me the following telegram: ‘Tremendously enthusiastic. We definitely want book.’ I took up the telephone and called Western Union. ‘Please repeat that wire,’ I said. ‘The meaning is n’t quite clear to me.’

A closer investigation indicated that he really means to publish it. Once I had made quite sure of that, I thought that the book was behind me, and began making plans for the royalties. No such luck. ‘Where,’ said the publisher firmly, ‘is your preface?'

Now the more I sit looking at a blank piece of paper, the more impossible it appears to write a preface. Most prefaces seem to open with an explanation and apology for writing the succeeding pages. What earthly use is this? Why not stand up and face the facts? The thing has happened; it may be regrettable, but if the author really thinks so he should have made more of an effort at prevention, and in nine cases out of ten I suspect that at the very moment when he is writing those words he is already planning a further venture. The divergence between convention and truth is apparently even greater in writing prefaces than in more ordinary walks of life.

There are certain things that one always puts in prefaces. For instance, there is the Muster of Distinguished Names. Now it is true that in the course of preparing this book of mine I met some quite respectably prominent people, but it is not true that they are the ones ‘to whom I owe whatever may be of value in the pages which follow.’ I owe that, as a matter of fact, to a certain number of conversations with people whose names have no publicity value whatever, to a certain number of those inexplicable and utterly unscientific hunches which the preface to every ‘sound’ book spends at least a paragraph in denying, and, what is never under any circumstances admitted, to a certain amount of donkey work of my own.

Then we have the question of support. As writing in the non-fiction field has become increasingly a matter of fellowships, research projects, or at least sabbatical years, there has crept in a paragraph on The Institution That Was Behind Me. For this paragraph I have nothing to offer; behind me there is nothing but the cipher of a vanished bank account. Ought I to dedicate the book, I wonder,

To the Guggenheim and Laura Spelman Rockefeller Foundations Whose assistance has not made possible this work?

It really looks as though I were n’t going to write that preface. But if I do, there is one paragraph about which I am quite clear. I have noticed that the final words of practically every conventionally constructed preface deal with the patience of wives. Their patience is acknowledged in slightly varying forms, in the collection of material, in the preparation of the typescript, in the reading of proof; occasionally one finds a Miltonian acknowledgment of her who only waited. Of course sometimes secretaries are substituted for wives, but it amounts to the same thing. Unfortunately my circumstances do not fit this case, but there is one source of assistance which I am only too proud to recognize. My final paragraph shall stand thus: —

And in closing, though more than to mention this is unnecessary for either of us, I wish to refer to my Baby Remington, without whose help this work could not have been completed.