My Unwritten Books

NEARLY every year I do not write a novel.

That is not a good sentence. If it were handed in to me by a student (for why should I conceal my profession?) I should not allow it. But for myself I cannot improve it. If I said, ‘Nearly every year I refrain from writing a novel,’I should convey an idea that is false. I do not refrain; I have to resist no urge. If I said, ‘I begin a novel,’I should be wrong again, for some of my novels are never actually begun. To say, ‘I play with the idea of writing a novel,’would be an injustice to myself; it is not the idea of writing that I play with — it is the novel. And nearly every year it is a different novel I don’t write. I conceive it, plan it, live with it. I know the beginning and the end. I know the binding and the opinions of the press. Only I don’t write it. I suppose I might amend my sentence to ‘Nearly every year I all-but-write a novel.’ That is a true statement. But I do not care for juxtaposition of nearly and all but. It suggests a very old riddle about a goat.

Once, outside a tailor’s shop in London, — not in Savile Row, — I saw a sign, PRACTICAL TAILOR. At the time the word practical bothered me, for I could not see how a tailor could be other than practical. Now I think that there may well be theoretical tailors (perhaps those who made the Emperor’s New Clothes were in this class), for I am a theoretical novelist. A theoretical tailor is one, no doubt, who cuts out his suit in the air, lines it and presses it and trims it, according to his fancy. Perhaps when he sews on his theoretical buttons he feels as I feel when I get to my dedications.

There are advantages in being a theoretical novelist. One is spared a great deal. There are no proofs to read. There are no interviews with publishers and literary agents; there is no soul-harming bargaining. One can change one’s publisher, too, without giving offense to anyone. Personally I like to change mine frequently, as I like variety even in colophons. I can change my titles, too, a thing no good publisher would allow for a moment. I have changed the title of my first novel three times in ten years, and I may change it again, for I can always think of more titles than I can use, and there are even yet a great many left in Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible. All the same, I don’t think I shall change the title of my next novel: Not without Dust still seems to me a pretty good name for a story about a college faculty.

Not only are my novels never rejected, but I can myself conduct the chorus of praise. I like to make up my own reviews, to be in turn the Times Literary Supplement and the Atlantic and Time. Sometimes I allow myself to be flayed a little, by a certain weekly review that likes flayings. I put peas in my shoes for the enjoyment I have had in watching other novelists suffer. But that is not often. For the most part my press cuttings are excellent — and I do not have to subscribe for them.

I am a novelist first, but I am also a theoretical essayist. I have enough unwritten essays to make two or three volumes which the reviewers call rare, delicate, subtle, and sometimes delightful, but oh! never whimsical. The soft luminosity of the essay, even the written essay, which deals in ideas of a somewhat tenuous kind, — nebulæ, not stars, — is agreeable to my mind. But the unwritten essay is better still, for here the ideas can stay as nebulous as I please. How should I ever have developed and finished, for instance, my essay ’On the Human Interest in Mathematics’ — about the people who live in textbooks, the men who work so many hours a day for so much, and the restless people who change places in railway coaches, and the little boy running round a board whom I once discovered in a mathematics book of a very high and rarefied kind?

Nowadays I am less of a theoretical scholar than I was (which does not mean, of course, that I am now a more practical scholar). The earlier volumes of my unwritten works of scholarship are ambitious affairs, well documented. My later ones are elegant monographs, on better paper, more pleasing to the eye; they deal gracefully with a little subject. Whereas I was once theoretical author of an exhaustive work entitled Animals in English Literature, — I was an Authority in those days, — I now take my animals one at a time, The Cat in the Eighteenth Century, for instance, or The Place of the Cow in Modern Poetry. There is a good deal to be done yet on the cow, as on the pig.

The worst of poems is that, being short, they tempt one to write them down. I have, however, far more — and far, far better — poems unwritten than written. I have, in fact, two volumes. One consists of light verse. It might have been called Lyra Academica, had the title not been taken. It is airy, polished, classic; not professorial, but, rather, donnish — suggestive of the type of don who looks out of his college window and keeps a good cellar. I like this book better than the other, which is called Crossings, and deals exclusively, and seriously, with the sea. I think well of the title Crossings, however: although it is meant to be taken literally, the public will suspect it of all sorts of veiled meanings. As a point of general information I might mention here that the birth rate of sonnets on Atlantic crossings is unexpectedly high. Having once, at sea, so far forgotten myself as to write a sonnet, I discovered it to be one of three produced on that particular passage. Three, that is to say, of which I knew. Heaven knows how many of the other passengers lying in deck chairs were concealing sonnets under their rugs.

There are some types of literature at which I do not try my hand even in theory. I am not, for instance, a theoretical playwright, though I should like to be, nor a biographer, though there are one or two lives I can think of that I should not mind putting my name to. I know my limitations and keep within them. But there are some books I do not write because I would not. I would not write them on any account; not if you were to go down on your knees (bended), nor if you were to hold a pistol to my head; not if you were to ask me never so. Books I would not touch with a barge pole, or be seen dead with. These are chiefly the books which people in my profession are fond of writing for each other. They are called A Years Work in Freshman English, Good English, Better English, The Best English; they deal in Unity, Coherence, and Emphasis, in Exposition, Narration, Argumentation, and Description. I shall not be theoretical author of any of these. You will not find among my unwritten works a book called How to Write. Nor even — split my infinitive! — How to Not Write.