1922 Slap-Down Of A Writing Con Artist

From The Writer, Volumes 32-34

Literature’s Golden Fleece

It pays to advertise; and this article would not be written if the only begetter of a “Wonder Book for Writers” had not vaunted its value so persuasively that I felt I had no right to reject the privilege of possessing it — more especially since it could be had for the asking, without money and without price

Perhaps before dealing with the “Wonder Book” I had better reproduce the alluring advertisement which adjured me to send for it. Here it is: —


A wonderful book — read about it! Tells how easily Stories and Plays are conceived, written, perfected, sold. How many who don’t DREAM they can write, suddenly find it out. How the Scenario Kings and the Story Queens live and work. How bright men and women, without any special experience, learn to their own amazement that their simplest ideas may furnish brilliant plots for Plays and Stories. How one’s own imagination may provide an endless gold mine of Ideas that bring Happy Success and Handsome Cash Royalties. How new writers get their names into print. How to tell if you ARE a writer. How to develop your “story fancy,” weave clever word pictures and unique thrilling realistic plots. How your friends may be your worst judges. How to avoid discouragement and the pitfalls of Failure. How to win! This surprising book is absolutely free. No charge. No obligation. Your copy is waiting for you. Write for it now.

When I perused this prismatic proclamation my mind went back to the earlier “Wonder Book” that Hawthorne wrote for boys and girls, and I saw at once that this new “Wonder Book,” meant for children of a larger growth, was the true descendant of the old one, since it promised to conduct modern Americans into the labyrinths of literature, whereby we might acquire wealth beyond the dreams of Argonauts. I saw also that he who was responsible for the wording of the captivating advertisement had the pen of a ready writer, to say the least; and I opined that the “Wonder Book” itself might be even more wonderful than this perfervid announcement of its many merits.

Here I have to confess a sore disappointment. Now that I have read, marked, and inwardly digested the “Wonder Book,” I am forced to admit that merely as literature it falls below the lofty standard of style attained by the advertisement, perhaps because the rhetorical athlete had exhausted himself in his first effort.

The “Wonder Book” is only a thin pamphlet of less than forty pages of text — infinite riches in a little room. It begins by informing us that nothing could be more fascinating and more charming than to write stories and photoplays in our spare hours — thus carrying literature as a side line, if I may so express it. Then we are told that writing is a beautiful profession and a princely occupation “filled with poetry, romance, and glory.” Next we learn that those who are privileged to read the “Wonder Book” can exult with inward exhilaration because they may be standing on the threshold of an unknown realm, where reputation waits and wealth beckons. And these readers are congratulated on their wisdom in seizing the opportunity held out to them by the three-ringed advertisement.

These flamboyant rhapsodies lead to the encouraging assertion that today writing is not only for those gifted by genius — and the fame achieved by some of those who have had the necessary confidence and patience and study is exemplified by the accompanying portraits of successful writers, seated thoughtfully in their luxurious libraries. The fortunes they have amassed are specified — and I regret to have to say that the figures here paraded are heaped up at random and with careless inaccuracies of detail.

All this is by way of preliminary to the insistence on the vital fact that confidence and patience and study are not by themselves sufficient to place the crown on the brow of a Story-King or a Scenario-Queen. There is need also of a guide, counselor, and friend, who shall show you the ropes, teach you the tricks of the trade, start you on the right path, and give you the clue to the core of the literary labyrinth. This guide, counselor, and friend is a “New System of Story and Play Writing,” published in five parts, “printed on the most expensive antique paper obtainable” and covered “in a fine reproduction of Old Spanish Castillian leather beautifully and artistically lettered in gold.” All the reader of the “Wonder Book” has to do is to send a check or a money order for ten dollars. The rest is easy — apparently as easy as rolling off a log, if this flippancy may be forgiven.

If the reader of the “Wonder Book” should fail to send for the five parts of the “New System of Story and Play Writing,” his interest will be revived by a follow-up letter, composed (I am convinced) by the writer of the original advertisement — none else could be his parallel: —

You simply cannot afford to delay or neglect your chance to get this New Easy Writing System . . . for we truly believe that for you it represents


That is good, as Polonius might say — there’s pippins and cheese to come, as Hugh Evans says: —

You must not hold back or hesitate about little things, such as whether or not you want to buy the New System — that is an insignificant trifle compared to the thing at which you are aiming. Own the New System just as quickly as you can — grasp every benefit, every helping hand held out to you. What you want is the result, the achievement, the success, the fruitful reward of your efforts, the glad tidings that your work has been accepted or the news that your play will go on the screen or your story on the news-stands.

Hesitate no longer — for the hesitator’s stories have never been read and his photo-plays will never be filmed!

Fill out the enclosed guarantee now. Put it in the mail before you lie down to sleep tonight, and it may indeed mean for you the Dawn of a New Tomorrow!

In thus urging all and sundry to go in quest of the Golden Fleece, the guide, counselor, and friend is sowing Dragon’s Teeth. He is suggesting that the average man, woman, and child in the United States is a mute, inglorious Milton — and that is just what the average man, woman, and child is not. He is encouraging them to believe that literature is for leisure hours and that it can be a by-product. He is implying that the art of fiction is easy. He is asserting that almost anyone can learn this out of a book; and in so doing he is tempting the immense majority of possible purchasers of the New System of Story and Play Writing to a grievous waste of time and energy. He is exposing ninety-nine out of every hundred to bitter disappointment.

As the art of fiction is an art, its processes have to be painfully acquired, like the processes of any other art, painting or sculpture or architecture. As these processes have to be learned, they may be taught; but they can be taught advantageously only by an accomplished practitioner of the art, as Carolus-Duran taught John S. Sargent, as Gustave Flaubert taught Guy de Maupassant, as Scribe taught the cloud of collaborators who compassed him about. The art of fiction cannot be mastered overnight by the aid of the best of textbooks, even if it had been prepared by an acknowledged master of the art — Stevenson or Kipling, Poe or O. Henry.

The “Wonder Book” does not even suggest that the compiler of the New System of Story and Play Writing has ever written story or a play. And a new system of story-telling is an impossibility. There is only one system of story-telling; it is not new; it as old as the hills and as young as the trees; and there will never be another. It is the system of Homer and Ovid, of the Nights and the Decameron, of Rabelais and Cervantes, of De Foe and Fielding, of Dumas and Hugo, of Scott and Cooper, of Dickens and Thackeray, of Hawthorne and Mark Twain. Those who seek to follow in the footsteps of these masters will find that they have a long, long trail before them. Yet the secrets of the craft are open to all who have eyes to see for themselves; and they can be applied by all who are possessed of the three indispensable qualifications — aspiration, inspiration, and perspiration.

Despite its flamboyant rhapsodies, the “Wonder Book” for writers is an unsafe guide; and its friendly counsels are misleading in so far as they imply that literature is a trade to be plied for profit. The rewards of authorship are abundant, but they are pecuniary only to a limited extent; and to those who have a true love for letters, the actual cash received — important as it may be and even necessary — is secondary to the pleasure of the work itself, hard labor though it be.

Brander Matthews.
New York Times Book Review.



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6 responses to “1922 Slap-Down Of A Writing Con Artist

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