Write it now, part 14: what a Dickens about novels

As we saw last time, the modern novel had its genesis in the late eighteenth century as a literary form designed to carry the reader on an emotional journey.

During the nineteenth century writers refined that and took it in new directions. But perhaps the biggest change came with the way writers published.

Charles Dickens, 1858. Public domain, from Wikimedia commons.
Charles Dickens, 1858. Public domain, from Wikimedia commons.

It was the culmination of a 200-year evolution. For a long time, publishing was ‘self-publishing’, and those who wrote needed to be independently wealthy. That changed during the seventeenth century, when it became possible for writers to earn a living by being paid to write. At first this was frowned upon; paid authors – mostly, it seems, working for newspapers in London’s Grub Street – were known as ‘Hackney’ or ‘Hack’ writers, a term that remains today as a derogatory moniker for a bad journalist, or a writer who appears to write for the money, not the dream. Pretty much the meaning it started with.

Those with a yen to write books still had to self-publish. Publishing houses would take money in return for producing the title. Or they might accept a title and buy it from the author, who earned nothing more. That changed with the emerging rights of authors under copyright law, but it was a slow process. The road effectively began in Britain in 1714 with the Statute of Anne. Other developments followed in Germany.

Authors did not begin to assert real rights over their work until the nineteenth century, though copyright was still far from ‘modern’ form. But from this emerged the royalty system. By this the author licensed somebody to use (publish) their intellectual property. In return they received a fee – a ‘royalty’, which was a percentage of the returns on the sales. The publisher took on producing and marketing the work.

This was entrenched by the late nineteenth century and remains a keystone of mainstream writing today.  (I’ll post on the transactability of these rights and ‘moral right’ soon).

1197094932257185876johnny_automatic_books_svg_medThe popularity of reading –  hence opportunities for writers – grew as society changed. The rising middle classes of the nineteenth century Britain, in particular, had the leisure time to read. Many of them were also educated enough to be able to read – also new. Into this burgeoning market exploded something else – the steam driven press. Suddenly readers could get newspapers and books relatively cheaply and in bulk.

Writers had a good deal to say by this time; the nineteenth century was an age of ideological ferment as the world shook down from the trauma of the industrial revolution. Some of the world’s greatest literature emerged from the mix, and the doyen of them all was Charles Dickens, whose novels were serialised and who became the hero writer of his day. The public couldn’t get enough of his stories, at once serious, funny, sad, happy and always imbued with a razor sharp social commentary.

But behind people such as Dickens – or for that matter, Jules Verne, Charles Dodgson and Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) were a host of lesser novelists, authors of the ‘penny dreadfuls’ – stories that appeared, serialised, in news-stands. Stories to be read once and disposed of.

And then something else emerged; genre. Stories of a particular type written to meet a specific market – something possible only as the audience for books exploded into life

Next time.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013