Friday, September 20, 2013

Book Review: My First Book by Jerome K. Jerome and Others

In a forgotten collection, Arthur Conan Doyle, R. L. Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and other late 19th century authors talk about being published for the first time.

One of the book-nerdiest things I do is that I occasionally click the “random” button at the Project Gutenberg site and choose one of the 25 books displayed there to read. (Click here to try it. Refresh the screen to get more random selections.) I’ve found several forgotten public domain books that way -- things I wouldn’t ordinarily have thought of (or known of) to try and seek.
Recently I came across My First Book, a collection of essays by notable writers on the subject of, naturally, their first books. 

First edition of My First Book, 1894.

Today’s review for Friday’s Forgotten Books decidedly counts as forgotten, considering that at present the book has zero reviews on either Amazon or Goodreads. That’s surprising, considering that writers on writing is a perennially popular subject among those who read, and especially those who also write. I highly recommend the collection to both readers and writers as an insight into the craft, and particularly the business of writing, that’s still refreshingly relevant.

My First Book was published in 1894, with an introduction (and also a first-book essay) by Jerome K. Jerome. Most know Jerome as the author of the wildly hilarious Three Men In a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), but he was also the co-editor, with Robert Barr, of a popular magazine called The Idler. “My First Book” was originally a running series in the monthly magazine, and Jerome ultimately collected the 22 contributing writers in one volume.

The Idler, where the "My First Book" essays first appeared.

Though some names will be more familiar than others, all of the writers were hugely popular in their day, and the list of names reads like a Who’s Who of Victorian fiction. The complete list includes, in addition to Jerome: Walter Besant, James Payn, W. Clark Russell, Grant Allen, Hall Caine, George R. Sims, Rudyard Kipling, A. Conan Doyle, M. E. Braddon, F. W. Robinson, H. Rider Haggard, R. M. Ballantyne, Israel Zangwill, Morley Roberts, David Christie Murray, Marie Corelli, John Strange Winter, Bret Harte, Q. (pen name of Arthur Quiller-Couch), Robert Buchanan, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Each writer has his or her own approach to talking about their early work, but many talk freely about the struggles in becoming a published author. It’s nice to feel some camaraderie with someone as eminent as Conan Doyle as he talks about his string of rejections:

“Fifty little cylinders of manuscript did I send out during eight years, which described irregular orbits among publishers and usually came back like paper boomerangs to the place that they had started from.”

Conan Doyle’s essay here is the source of the oft-repeated story of his first full book manuscript, which to his horror, never arrived at the publishers, and was never seen again.

“Of course it was the best thing I ever wrote. Who ever lost a manuscript that wasn’t? But I must in all honesty confess that my shock at its disappearance would be as nothing to my horror if it were suddenly to appear again --in print.”

Robert Louis Stevenson was likewise horrified when the manuscript for Treasure Island arrived just fine, but the map he (and his father) had worked on so assiduously was lost and never recovered. He did it over again, but admitted that “it was never Treasure Island to me.”

“It is one thing to draw a map at random, set a scale in one corner of it at a venture, and write up a story to the measurements. It is quite another to have to examine the whole book, make an inventory of all the allusions contained in it, and with  a pair of compasses, painfully design a map to suit the data.”

Walter Besant almost sounds like a modern-day freelancer, telling of “years of rejection,” and spending all of his extra money on books, paper, and postage, while doing all of his writing during dinner breaks at an office job. He also talks of writing like mad and sending his work off to “every kind of periodical that I could find in the Post Office Directory.” (Now we know what young freelancers did before the Writer’s Market.) Besant and others like him had a difficulty we don’t have today, with the easy availability of photocopying. After his hand-written manuscripts had been rejected a few times, they looked worn, and not wanting them to look like they’d been shopped around, he rewrote them again by hand before sending them out anew.

Jerome K. Jerome, editor of My First Book, author in his own right.

Jerome himself gave me a laugh, discussing his lifelong problem with a critic having labeled him as a "humourist" early on:

“ ... I'd pen a pathetic story, the reviewer calls it ‘depressing humour,’ and if I tell a tragic story, he says it is ‘false humour,’ and, quoting the dying speech of the broken-hearted heroine, indignantly demands to know ‘where he is supposed to laugh.’ I am firmly persuaded that if I committed a murder half the book reviewers would allude to it as a melancholy example of the extreme lengths to which the ‘new humour’ had descended."

Marie Corelli: The Victorian Stephenie Meyer?

While I was unfamiliar with writer Marie Corelli, the reading public of the time knew her well. I found her essay amusing, because she comes off like a Victorian-era Stephenie Meyer. She primarily wrote about supernatural subjects while reconciling them with Christianity, and the people ate it up. Corelli was a huge bestseller (outselling the works of Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, and Kipling combined), but the critics loathed her. “A woman of deplorable talent,” wrote one. Another said she had “the mentality of a nursemaid.” Corelli’s essay is a tad haughty, but you can’t blame her for being defensive, even as she laughed her way to the bank.

“I count no ‘friend on the Press,’ and I owe no ‘distinguished critic’ any gratitude. I have come, by happy chance, straight into close and sympathetic union with my public, and attained to independence and good fortune while I am still young and able to enjoy both.”

There are many, many more passages worth quoting from My First Book, but you should find them on your own. Even if you pick and choose essays to read or to skip according to your own taste, you’ll find plenty of historical anecdotes you never knew, and loads of writing wisdom from some truly experienced folks.

Download My First Book for free at Project Gutenberg.

Download My First Book for free at Amazon.


  1. This sounds like a real charmer Kelly, thanks for the links too as it'll be great to be able to dip in and out of it!

    1. There are more hits than misses, I think, and a lot of anecdotes I've never seen anywhere else. I think you'll like it.

  2. Reading your review, I think it's both amusing and depressing that so much has remained the same, e.g. critics and writing/publishing being a money pit. Still, it's always a bit of relief for struggling writers to realize that most of us are floating in the same leaky boat on a rough sea with no map (that's for Robert Louis Stevenson).

    By the way, Patti's taking the day off, so I'm collecting all the FFB links today.

    Next week: Patricia Highsmith Day.

    1. There's an anecdote I didn't use about one of the authors being completely misled and ripped off by a publisher, and alas, that hasn't completely changed, either.

  3. Marie Corelli as so popular her books were pirated by scofflaw "publishers" in the US. She never received a penny for all those sales. I'd be haughty, too, if I were a professional writer and my books were being stolen left and right by avaricious opportunists who care little for a writer's life or integrity. It's pretty much the same with filmmakers and DVD piracy today. Her book Wormwood is probably the best thing she worte -- a horrifying account of alcoholic addiction and an indictment against the decadent lives of absinthe drinkers and the madness some of them succumbed to.

    The essays about Conan Doyle and Stevenson have great ideas for novelists or short sotry writers looking for a tantalizing plot. Maltese Falcon redux. Long lost map/manuscript re-surfaces and is sought after by treasure seekers. Intrigue, betrayal and murder ensue.

    1. I think the reason the attitude I'm referring to as "haughty" bothered me at all, is that it permeates the entire essay. Corelli spends pages and pages defending herself, when I would have more respect for (and interest in) the piece if she addressed the critics' dislike for her briefly, then moved on.

      On the other hand, maybe she appreciated the opportunity to vent about it publicly. Maybe this article was the big public "screw you" she'd been waiting for.

      You're right about the lost manuscripts making a nice plot device. Hmmmmmmm...

  4. As many times as I've visited Project Gutenberg, I never thought to hit the "random" button. Now, I'm glad I took your advice and hit it.

  5. Good find, Kelly! Nearly every one of those names is familiar to me though I haven't read all of the authors. I almost always refresh the screen on free books sites and often randomly choose an ebook. It's more fun this way. As a reader I like to know what writers think about writing, their own and that of other writers, one of the reasons I like digging into THE PARIS REVIEW interviews every now and then.

    1. I don't only do the random thing for fun. Project Gutenberg is not very easy to browse. If you're not looking for a specific thing, you're sort of out of luck. "Random" has led me to things I never would have found -- or thought to look for.

  6. Very interesting! I have Three Men in a Boat and have not read it yet. Will go get this book now!