How To Write Like a Victorian

What can the first how-to book for fiction still tell us?

In the fall of 1895, thousands of Brits were wracked by a painful and embarrassing affliction: rejection slips. Britain, it seems, was a nation of cracked Kiplings and ham-handed Hardys. “The number of persons who are now engaged in writing fiction,” the Glasgow Herald estimated, “[is] somewhere between fifteen and twenty thousand.”

For them, the publication that year of Jude the Obscure and The Time Machine meant far less than the appearance of a whole new kind of book: How To Write Fiction. Published under the pen name “An Old Hand,” How To’s anonymous author was a “well known novelist”—a man who, the Herald assured readers, might open “a new prospect for those would-be novelists who are annually rejected in their thousands.” The introduction to the book promised to give readers the clarity of long experience—not some youth whose “work will appear like a picture in a stereopticon that is out of focus.”

The guide’s creator certainly had a talent for fiction: Despite his claim that “all young persons are more or less unbalanced,” author Sherwin Cody was just 26 years old. His only previous volume was a self-published poetry chapbook. With Cody’s aptly fictive How To Write Fiction, the raffish business of creative-writing instruction was born.

If it hadn’t been Cody, though, someone else would have written it: The whole discipline had been gestating for a decade, beginning with novelist Walter Besant musing in 1884 over the notion of “Professors of Fiction”—something then as fantastical as a steam-powered robot. It was a vision that at least one critic found “Appalling. As if there were not enough novels already. … [Now] we are to have our young maidens trained to the business, and let loose upon the world, in batches, every year to pursue their devastating calling, as if they were dentists or pharmaceutical chemists.”

Others, though—especially the maidens blocked from those dental and chemist careers—were delighted. Writing novels offered women advancement, if not quite critical regard, a complaint that still haunts the profession. The London women’s magazine Atalanta launched a regular “School of Fiction” column, and its advice from 1893 on pitching remains as useful and unheeded as ever: Keep your pitch short, nail down a tangible story first, and for god’s sake read the magazine before you submit to it. Ladies were then invited to try such spry writing exercises as an imagined 500-word dialogue “on the Equality of the Sexes, between Miss Minerva Lexicon, M.A., an apostle of Progress, and Miss Lavinia Straightlace, of the Old-Fashioned School.”

How To Write Fiction, though, was the genre’s first avowed how-to guide. Like so many aspirational books, it had its origins in America: it had already appeared in cruder form in Chicago, and priced at an eye-watering $10. That took nerve—and as an orphan who rose from a Michigan log cabin to the editorial offices of Chicago and London, nerve was what Sherwin Cody had. Perhaps that’s why How To Write Fiction retains a certain shrewd cunning even today. There are lines to remind you that it’s 1895: Guy de Maupassant is lauded for his “scientific method” of fiction, and Cody opines that “men most often take a good theme which they then treat badly, and women a poor theme which they treat well.” Writers were ill-advised to write about anything disturbingly peculiar (“the special and queer in human nature ought to be eliminated”) or peculiarly disturbing (“legitimate art does not admit controversial theology or science”). Yet much of Cody’s advice remains startlingly recognizable: It’s Writer’s Digest with a handlebar mustache.

Along with Realism’s credo that no artifice should be visible to the audience (“the public is like a child: it wants to be moved emotionally or unconsciously”), and the suggestion to observe an old man in the street and imagine his life story (“all the elements of his broken youth are clearly visible under the hapless veneer of time”), all the classics of writing advice are here. After warning that there are no small ideas, only small writers—but many small writers with small ideas—Cody tells would-be Victorian writers to show and don’t tell (“To say your heroine was proud and defiant is not half so effective as saying she tossed her head and stamped her foot”), to kill their darlings (“sacrifice absolutely everything of that sort”), and write what they know. Oh—and don’t quit your day job: “No man ought to make the writing of fiction his sole business.”

Cody’s call for carefully detailed characters and settings remains timeless. New writers adopt an inadvertent shorthand, forgetting that the reader cannot see what is in their head. It’s a plight How To Write Fiction compares to emptying out a quart bottle of molasses and finding that it only yields a pint. The rest is still stuck inside the container: “The young writer imagines he has a good story, but when he has a written it out the story is not half so good as he fancied, and he wonders what is the matter. The truth is, half of it still remains in his mind.”

If Cody’s advice from 1895 is familiar, it’s probably because writers have changed much less than writing itself. Aspiring authors are still told to beware of their pet lines—their darlings—and most still don’t listen. Ruthlessness with one’s own copy remains the mark of a professional, because you have to stab yourself in the back. And the stricture to “write what you know”? It’s still the universally misunderstood abridgement of Write what you know—so go out and know something. The writer who doesn’t will only have one or two books in them. Writers in for the long haul don’t have a great story—they have a dozen—and because they believe in their own ability to create more, they’ll toss them aside whenever they’re not wanted or needed.

It’s here that How To Write Fiction is most haunting. Memoirs now bear authors the same peril that coming-of-age novels once did: namely, a self-centeredness that leaves them with nothing else to write. Cody leans on a fence to observe these one-trick ponies: “There are a great many writers who start out in the magazines with a few brilliant and interesting short stories. There are a few printed on the strength of their first reputation, which are not so good … and the reader hears their names no more until one or two of their first stories are reprinted in some collection, and he wonders what has become of the authors.”

There is pathos in that line—for those authors probably wondered at the same question themselves—and still do.

More than a century of me-too books have followed How To Write Fiction; by 1901, one already includes a chapter asking “Is The Subject-Matter of Novels Exhausted?” But what of the man who began it all? Though Cody went on to hawk correspondence courses, when the “well known novelist” published his first actual novel in 1896—the Horatio Algeresque tale In the Heart of the Hills—creative writing’s first guru met with a twist worthy of fiction itself.

His novel tanked—and he never wrote one again.

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