Andrew Nash, ‘Better Dead’. J.M.Barrie’s First Book and the Shilling Fiction Market.
This article was published in the Scottish Literary Review Volume 7, Number 1, Spring/Summer 2015 pp. 19-41
The abstract is free to view here https://muse.jhu.edu/article/582218/pdf but beyond that, if you don’t have academic ‘privileges’ it’s a bit trickier. If you are a member of the National Library of Scotland (and if you are in Scotland I would heartily recommend it) you can gain access to the EBSCO Host through Humanities International Complete database*
Not wanting to infringe copyright, I haven’t put the abstract up here, but if you can’t read it online then I’d be happy to email it to members. What follows is my ‘opeenion’ about the article.
In essence, as I read it, Nash’s argument is that the form and content are connected in a vital way – in Better Dead as a ‘shilling’ novel we are getting something appropriate to the form and should not try to dress the work up as anything else. This is eminently sensible – and the insight Nash offers into the history of publishing at this most interesting of times – the role of journalism in the rise of mass market publishing and the creation of the celebrity authors of the late 19th century is worth the article alone. He notes ‘The emergence of the form was facilitated by the growth of new retails outlets for fiction, particularly the spread of railway bookstalls. In fiction publishing of this period the retail price of a book often indicated its consumer outlet.’
Nash also raises some points which have interest as regards the contemporary modes of publication, and which resonate and have relevance with issues in today’s flexible publishing market-place. I found his exploration and explanation of the half-profit system or the ‘‘commission and divide’ system, as it was termed in the trade,’ helpful in drawing connections between publishing business models from the 19th century and present models, and the connections between mass market publishing at the end of the 19th century and the rise of digital publishing in the early 21st century are worthwhile exploring whether you are interested in Barrie or not.
Beyond that, as might be expected, Nash offers a critique of Better Dead. Having situated it in its temporal and publishing context, he also sites it generically – as a work of political satire. Through example Nash reveals many of the contemporary references and relevances that might otherwise elude us.
The ephemerality of satire, especially of the ‘penny shilling’ or brochure type, should not be underestimated. For me the analogy is medieval painting. There is little point disputing the quality of perspective or representational skill of a work that serves if not primarily, then at least subordinately, as an allegorical work – the allegory lost to those of us without the requisite religious and cultural knowledge. And this is the case with Better Dead. Judging it without a working knowledge of the contemporary issues and ‘characters’ of the political scene leaves the reader with a decidedly incomplete picture from which to ‘judge’ its creative and literary merits.
Nash reveals what contemporary reviewers thought of the work including the Glasgow Herald, whom he says ‘perceptively suggested that Barrie was parodying the form of the shilling novel almost as much as he was parodying contemporary politics.’
This points us towards the centrality of humour in Barrie’s work - without which one will always fail to get a grip of Barrie’s writing. Nash points to Barrie’s comic style, which he notes ‘lies in the way the tone of a sentence or paragraph abruptly shifts with the introduction of a new clause.’
In this article, which like Better Dead itself, repays revisiting time and again, Nash has managed to bring a range of aspects into one place which is a boon for those of us interested in Barrie but without the time, space or skill to research all these aspects and make the connections. It is also significant in contextualising Barrie’s importance in the literary world of his day. But this is not all. I also picked up on a perhaps less obvious aspect to the article which offers food for thought.
Nash’s research draws on unpublished correspondence between Barrie and Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey & Co as well as his friend Gilmour and others. I am interested in the ‘construction’ of the author in correspondence and Barrie seems a particularly interesting case in point. The return to primary source material in the form of letters is welcome but carries, I think, some dangers for literary criticism.
I would like to thank Dr Andrew Nash for his recent highlighting of his article about Better Dead from 2014. The article has a lot of very interesting things to say, not just about Barrie and Better Dead, but about publishing and cultural production as well. This is one of the things I had hoped for in the talking shops – we may not be able to sit down over a pint or a coffee and ‘chat’ Barrie, but via the written word I have already had something of a ‘conversation,’ and hope for more. I hope others will join in.
Talking shop conversations are perhaps more slow-burn than the instant gratification of social media, but they also have the potential for more depth and perhaps especially offer a depth of perspective which is lacking in the day to day online ‘interactions’ which of necessity replace ‘live’ chat for many of us.
There is perhaps more scope to listen and respond via the keyboard than we have previously considered – we have maybe lost sight of the potential in this world of short form, touchscreen, ‘connected’ living. But the technology is simply the tool and it is for us to adapt it to our own wants and needs. Being able to ‘talk’ via long form – beyond the personal email – is, for me, an important communicative act and in itself an important part of cultural creativity.
Please feel free to offer your own ‘opeenion’ piece, either as a comment or for long-form in a corner of the talking shop all of its own.
*If you need help in this, please email and I’ll try and talk you through the process. It’s well worth it.
This is early Barrie. Self published Barrie. It dates in published form from 1887. It is Barrie before he ‘was’ Barrie, while he was still being published (and more often not published) as Anon or Gavin Ogilvy. He claimed later to be embarrassed by it. But I don’t see anything to be embarrassed by. It stands the test of time. Sure it’s not a complete, polished novel – but Barrie never really went down that route. He was far too experimental to constrain himself fully within the standard ‘forms’ of fiction. Once you understand that you find his writing much more powerful. He doesn’t do straightjackets. And yet he was able to write concise, humorous, popularist fiction which engages as it confuses. And I think we can see the seeds of all this within Better Dead.
When I think about Better Dead, and it is one of those stories whose images stay with me, I am transported back in time. The images, and more importantly the feeling or ‘tone’ it leaves me with is the same as I get from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) or John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps (1915) Which for my money places Barrie if not into a ‘genre’ or ‘style’ then at least onto a ‘spectrum’ in the company of some very good writers. I think it also shows him as an ‘innovator.’
Barrie wrote Better Dead in his late twenties. That’s a time in life when one is still hopeful of ‘making it’ (whatever that might be) and one’s view on the world and one’s place in it is quite different from what it is in one’s forties or fifties (and later I expect, I’ve yet to receive the wisdom of that many years). And doubtless the age that you are when you read something impacts on the ‘message’ you get from it. I have certainly found that works I read in my twenties 'read' quite differently with each passing decade. The relationship between writer and reader changes over time - which is one of the things I find fascinating about the process (both as writer and as reader.)
There is definitely something of youth in Better Dead. I think Barrie was wrong in being later embarrassed by it (though I suspect that, being Barrie, he wasn’t that embarrassed, he was the master of sleight of hand in the respect of critical commentary).
I’ve recently come across something similar but completely different. It’s another young, unknown writer struggling with the iniquities of the social order and political system. She’s ‘doing a Barrie’ in a modern context. She’s called Sara Clark and her work in progress is called The Last Day and is being storyboarded on Facebook. How’s that for a contemporary ‘self-publishing’ option?
It’s not derivative of Barrie, but she’s working on the same spectrum, and for me it’s exciting to know that, despite the commercial constraints of the mainstream – which get harder and tighter with every year – and produce more and more homogenised writing that I am less and less interested in reading – there are still the ‘indies’ out there working under the radar.
We need young writers (we need all writers) to be more experimental, to write more from the heart and to express their angst in written form. This is writing to ‘connect’ emotionally to. Writing to make you think as well as laugh. I urge you to read Better Dead. And to seek out The Last Day. Both will challenge your expectations.
Once you've finished reading please come back and talk about your impressions. Talking about fiction gives it another life. And, for me at least, part of the ‘point’ of such writing is that it connects one mind to another. It’s about sharing of thought and emotion – something we have all the technology but few of the ‘tools’ to do these days.
At M’Connachie’s Talking Shop I hope we can step out of the shadows, stop fearing ‘what people think’ or whether we are ‘saying the right things’ in relation to texts. Literary criticism is not the exclusive province of the classroom or academia. It’s for everyone. It's a way we can meaningfully communicate thoughts and feelings.
All opinions are welcomed here – just engage with the debate, help create the debate, talk about what you read and share what you feel. Don’t be embarrassed. Being too frightened to share your opinion simply stifles debate and freedom of speech. You don’t need to know the ‘rules’ to have a go. I suggest we all need to learn how to express ourselves better – but it’s like learning to swim, you have to get into the water to do it. Whether you’re going to dive (or jump) right in the deep end or just dip your toe in the water, please get wet – read Better Dead and tell us what you think about it.
How to get your hands, eyes and mind on Better Dead.
It’s available as an ebook HERE http://www.unco.scot/store/p130/Better_Dead_.html
(members of J.M.Barrie Literary Society can download it for free by using the Members code JUMBLIS at checkout)
Or online as a McSerial HERE
navigate your way back through the home page http://www.mcstorytellers.com/
via oor McSerials /Barrie section to get the other episodes. It’s finger clicking good!
It is also coming soon in a J.M.Barrie Literary Society paperback edition.
The Last Day (work in progress) is going to be serialised at McStorytellers, commencing on Weds June 28th. If you can't wait, you can follow Sara's progress on her Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/clarkyslass
I hope to hear from you soon,
Cally Phillips 19th June 2017.
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