Friday, 4 April 2014

What goes around comes around... who will remember YOU in 100 years? by Cally Phillips

120 years ago a new writer ‘burst onto the literary scene. He had, of course, spent the obligatory 10+ years honing his craft before his ‘overnight’ success.

Birthplace
It was 1894. The height of  the Victorian era and the cult of celebrity was very similar to what it is today. The only difference was the means of dissemination. Instead of ‘social’ media, the popular media of 1894 was the periodical (if you were middle /upper class) and the monthly, weekly or ‘penny dreadful’ magazines  (if you were middle/lower class). The distinction between ‘literature’ and ‘fiction’ was still being thrashed out (in said periodicals and magazines) and genre fiction was pretty much still an ‘out there’ concept. Our man fell foul of this many a time and oft.  Especially with his ‘historical fiction’ writing.

There was a split between those of the ‘old’ order who still believed that literature was essentially the province of the ‘educated’ and those of the ‘new’ order who believed that it was the ‘right’ of the masses.  These two orders fought it out like Coke and Pepsi, or Google and Microsoft, in the publishing arena.  The ‘traditional’ literary magazines still held onto the belief that writing was for gentlemen (and scorned at the paying of such) while the emerging mass market popular magazines started paying people to write and review (and paying handsomely).  A battleground was formed around the persona of the reviewer/critic.  Throw in religious and political alliances and it was a milieu which could make or break men (mostly men but some women) and their talent.

A.P.Watt 
Literary agents were the new ‘black’ and our man had one. The best. A.P. Watt (who invented the very profession.) And like all successful writers, as well as a heap of talent he had a few bits of luck. His writing for magazines had got him ‘noticed’ by the well known editor of a large publishing syndicate,  W. Robrtson Nicoll of the mighty Hodder & Stoughton. He was advised to submit work for serial publication, did so and was picked up by THE new writing publisher of the 1890’s, one T.Fisher Unwin (recently broken away from Hodder & Stoughton.) He was supported by an influential ‘publisher’s reader’ (editor) Edward Garnett.

R.L.Stevenson
In 1893 ‘our’ man had a ‘collection’ of his magazine short stories published by Unwin. ‘Our’ man dedicated it to R.L. Stevenson (one of the ‘greats’ of his day) with whom he’d been corresponding for some years (a mentor if you will) and sent him a copy. Stevenson said nice things about and wrote a poem which went into the second (and subsequent editions). Because yes, it was popular enough to go into several editions pretty swiftly and they did well enough that Unwin decided to take quite a punt on him – to make him a ‘star.’ 

Don’t be fooled into thinking that marketing is a 21st century skill. In the 1890’s they knew what to do and how to do it. Unwin backed himself by bringing out no less than 4 works by our man in the same year.  Two of these were what might best be described today as long short stories or short novellas. They had been previously serialised in several episodes and come in at about 20,000 words each. ‘Mad Sir Uchtred of the Hills’ caused an absolute stooshie and ‘The Great Preacher’ had its name changed to the more media savvy  ‘The Play Actress.’

Unwin was not one for the slow burn.  He knew how to make the most of his investment and he knew that he needed to make an impact and he brought out 2 full length novels  in the same year.  (All ‘new’ writers will do well to note that it’s good to have a 10 year backlog of work to draw from when they decide to make you famous overnight!)

2 for 1 'then' 
And for a digital present
Of these two novels ‘The Lilac Sunbonnet’  was an out and out romance and ‘The Raiders’ an adventure, in the Stevensonian tradition.  It probably didn’t hurt our man’s cause that Stevenson died at the end of 1894, leaving a gap in that particular market which our man was willing and able to fill.  

If you have heard of our man, it is likely that you’ll have read one of the two novels just mentioned. This is not because they are the ‘best’ but because they were the ones that received the most publicity time over the years.  As the ‘breakthrough’ novels they are the ones people come back to time and again as ‘paradigms’ of the work. But this is ridiculous.  Our man published over 60 novels in his career and these two stand out no more than any of the others.  There is much more to our man than these two novels, believe me.  (Question for the writers among us – how would you like to be judged only on your earliest published works?)

You know you're a celeb when
Vanity Fair Cartoons you.
But, suffice it to say that with that happy combination of good fortune, good marketing and a good professional/personal network, our man became not just a best selling writer but a ‘celebrity.’  With the emergence of the mass market and popular culture in publishing,  the cult of celebrity really found its home.   The 1890’s was an era when what anyone connected with books did or looked like became newsworthy. (Not least because it was a form of business promotion for the publishers – it was of course in their interest to promote their writers) 

It was an age of syndication and wide market penetration.  Of course with fierce competiton, ‘sides’ emerged and celebrities were subject not just to hyperbolic praise, as they were ‘puffed’ to eye watering sales figures; equally they were slated in other corners. Our man had his fair share of both. He was accused of plagiarism, of writing too fast, of writing too much, of writing too shockingly, of writing not shockingly enough. You name it, they threw it at him.  Par for the course.   And the controversy just fuelled the sales.  Contemporary  cultural interest was vested as much in an author’s personality as it was in his books. In some quarters there was little discussion of writers’ books, but plenty of background information about their lives, ways and habits. A contemporary ‘critic’ stated ‘The curiosity with which a section of the newspaper press has been inspired as to Mr. Crockett’s personal whereabouts, as to his comings and goings, his engagements for the future, and his prices ‘per thousand words’, would have seemed to indicate that in him we had discovered a person of considerably more than the average height.’

Because yes, the cat’s out the bag  - our ‘celebrity, best-selling writer’ is none other than S.R.Crockett (pause while you say – who?) Born plain Samuel Crocket on 24th September 1859 and died famous Samuel Rutherford Crockett on 16th April 1914 (the sharp witted amongst you will now begin to work out what’s behind this post).

You may never have heard of him but the statistical tables of best-sellers record that over the years 1891-1901 it was the works of Crockett that made the lists more often than any other author, including Marie Corelli, (again – who?)  who is generally identified as the best-selling of all Victorian and Edwardian novelists. Maclaren (thrice times who?)  takes fourth place in this survey with Kipling third and Barrie ninth. (you've heard of at least one of them, right?)   So – our man was among the best-selling  authors of his day. And they sold plenty in those days.  ‘The Lilac Sunbonnet’ (1894) sold out all 100,000 copies on the day of publication.  Crockett’s early work went into edition after edition after edition.  It didn’t flood the market – there was a huge market after all – but it rode the crest of the wave for quite some time.

'The Windsor' Magazine of 1896 reported In three years the aggregate sale of Mr Crockett’s books has reached a quarter of a million copies. and added that In America his books have had a very large sale, not always to the monetary advantage of their author, owing to the pirated editions which have been published

In 1895 Crockett gave up his day job to become a full time writer, well able to support his growing family by the pen (or typewriter).  He embarked upon a career which he tailored to the requirements of the publishers of ‘popular’ fiction of the day. He wrote for serial fiction (often reluctantly) and developed an episodic style which made for fast paced, exciting stories.  He turned out on average 2 novels a year, one set in Scotland and one set abroad.  He was versatile and yet developed a unique style even while remaining in the ‘popular’ camp.  As a writer he can hold his head up beside Dickens, Hardy, Dumas and Stevenson without a qualm. He wrote historical fiction, adventure romance and contemporary social stories. He dealt with rural childhood as easily as urban poverty.


So why haven’t you heard of him or read any of his work? I call it the Spangles effect.  You can’t buy something that is no longer ‘produced.’ You can’t read something that you’ve never heard of.  And unless you have a hankering for Spangles you’ll never know what you are missing now that they are no longer on sale. But if you grew up loving Spangles I’m willing to bet you’d buy them again today if you could. And enjoy them. If you loved Spangles I bet you are right now craving the taste of a butterscotch one.  If not, please substitute the long gone sweet confection of your choice for Spangles to get the point.

'The' sweet of choice 1940's -1970's.
Well, I can’t bring back Spangles, but I have worked for the last two years to bring you the equivalent in fiction.  I’ve been engaged in a two year (or twenty year depending on how you look at it) one woman mission to bring a fine writer back into public consciousness.  I’m no T.Fisher Unwin, no W. Robertson Nicoll and I don’t have the backing of either the mass media or the literary elite, so I have no expectations (Great or otherwise) and know this endeavour is destined to remain a ‘niche’ experience but I feel a sense of personal pride that I have shown an innovative approach to the ‘digital revolution’  and am now able to offer readers both a choice and an ‘informed’ choice about their reading matter.  My job’s nearly done. The rest is up to you.  I hope that you’ll feel inspired to support a fellow writer. Broaden your reading horizons, take a chance and see what you can find outside of today’s homogenised mainstream.  After all, in another 100 years we’ll all be long forgotten. Suck your Spangles while you can.

I'm guessing none of us will have a memorial this
lasting. But having your books read is a
better memorial isn't it? 

If you want to find out more about S.R.Crockett, The Galloway Raiders (an S.R.Crockett literary society) has been set up and is running a series of events from April 12th –April 18th. It’s free to join and you get discounts on ebooks.   Why not  Check it out here

And, heaven forfend, if you are actually brave enough to step outside of the familiar and  read some of his work,  go to Ayton Publishing

 Crockett’s Galloway based novels  are now available in a 32 volume collection‘The Galloway Collection’ is in both ebook and POD formats. The Collection is ‘launching’ at Wigtown Book Town on April 16th to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of S.R.Crockett - a friend I have never met, but a friend none the less.

Why not make him one of 'your' virtual friends?  He's even on facebook.

And if you are really more interested in sweeties than reading check this Guardian article  out – Spangles hail from 1948 – the year Orwell published 1984 – and are the no 1 retro sweet listed! 

HOT BREAKING NEWS! 
The following is listed in the Scottish Parliament Business Bulletein today. 


Alex Fergusson: Centenary of S R Crockett, Scottish Novelist—
That the Parliament notes the centenary of the death of Samuel Rutherford Crockett, the Scottish novelist, on 16 April 2014; further notes that he was born and raised in Galloway, graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1879 and, after some years of travelling, became a minister at Penicuik in 1886 before becoming a full-time novelist following the success of his first novel, The Stickit Minister, in 1893 and subsequent novels, which featured the history of both Scotland and Galloway; commends the Galloway Raiders on marking Crockett’s centenary with a series of events including walks, talks, readings and the launch of the 32-volume, The Galloway Collection, which will bring all of Crockett’s Galloway-based novels back into circulation for the 21st century in e-book and print editions, and considers this to be a most fitting way to commemorate the centenary of the death of S R Crockett, considered one of Scotland’s greatest writers. 

Not sure exactly what it means but it's nice to be recognised, and it feels like quite an endorsement. Happy days. 

4 comments:

madwippitt said...

Old English Spangles for me please.

Dennis Hamley said...

Common-as-muck pear drops sold loose were my childhood opiate. I found some on sale at the Olde English Candy Shop in Queenstown, NZ, savoured the first with happy expectation but quickly realised that they weren't quite as good as I remembered. Sad.

Cally, I think what you've done/are doing for SRC is wonderful. He must be a very happy and grateful man, even from beyond the grave.

Kathleen Jones said...

Hope it does really well Cally - it's sad when such good writers become invisible. I've had the same with Norman Nicholson - the Faber editor when he died hated him and his poetry and so chose not to promote him. Faber still don't and he's fallen out of the public eye. It's NN's centenary this year too, so hopefully both 'our men' will see some limelight!
Like Dennis, I think all your hard work is wonderful Cally, but I'm sad if it takes time from your own writing.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Wonderful and three cheers for the parliamentary mention and congratulations on the project - what a VAST amount of work. My dad was a Crockett fan. He loved the Raiders, but I think he started with The Grey Man because it was so 'local'. He was a great hillwalker and used to hunt out the locations in the novels. Hoping to get to at least some of the events the week after next.