The Reviewer’s Lament

The Monthly Review of June 1791 carried the following weary review, decrying the lack of novelty in novels in a refrain that is still all too familiar. The book ostensibly under review was “The Labyrinths of Life” by the Author of Excessive Sensibility and Fatal Follies, 4 vols, 12mo, price 12s sewed.

When a manufacture has been carried on long enough for the workmen to attain a general proficiency, the uniformity of the stuffs will render it difficult to decide on the preference of one piece beyond another; and this must be our apology for not entering into a discussion of the merits of the novel now before us, which, at the same time that it exhibits nothing to shock our feelings, affords nothing to attract particular attention, either as to material or workmanship. Two of the earliest fabricators of this species of goods, the modern novel, in our country, were Daniel Defoe, and Mrs. Haywood; the success of Pamela may be said to have brought it into fashion; and the progress has not been less rapid than the extension of the use of tea, to which a novel is almost as general an attendant, as the bread and butter, especially in a morning. While we are on this subject, it is also to be noted, that nothing is more common than to find hair-powder lodged between the leaves of a novel; which evinces the corresponding attention paid to the inside as well as to the outside of a modern head. Richardson, Fielding, Smollet, and Sterne, were the Wedgwoods of their days; and the imitators that have since started up in the same line, exceed all power of calculation! When an art becomes general, then is the time for the invention of engines to facilitate the operations, as in the cotton manufacture. Swift’s machine for the composition of books, described in his Gulliver, like most other first attempts, has not been found to answer. It was reserved for us to publish a scheme for the easy multiplication of novels, cheap in its execution, and certain in its operations, so long as not only our presses, but those of Germany and France, will furnish raw materials to work up; and before then can fail, we may hope to import ample supplies from America. Here then we disinterestedly offer it pro bono publico; and expect the thanks of the whole body of frizeurs, for out assistance toward relieving them from a multitude of impatient exclamations, and profane oaths.

Recipe for Dressing up Novels ad libitum.

Go to Middle Row, Holborn; where, since mankind have discovered that their own hair is sufficiently capable of distortion, the sellers of old cast-off wigs have given place to the dealers in cast-off books; there, on the bulks, from among the classes of a groat or sixpence per volume, buy any old forgotten novel, the older the better; give new names to the personages and places, reform the dates, modernize such circumstances as may happen to be antiquated, and, if necessary, touch up the style a little with a few of those polite cant words and phrases that may be in fashion at the time. All this may be done with a pen, in the margin of the printed book, without the trouble of transcribing the whole, unless it is to be carried to a bookseller for sale; for then you must shew a manuscript. In either case, it may be boldly sent to the printer; for printers, like surgeons and lawyers, are bound to keep the secrets of their employers.

To a publisher, there are many advantages attending this mode of proceeding; and the saving of copy-money is to be reckoned as the chief. A novel of two or three volumes, that could not be purchased under four or five guineas, may be this new vamped from an old one, by a compositor who dabbles a little with his pen, for perhaps half a guinea; and if the alterations be skilfully performed, they will confound the judgment, so that, neither author nor bookseller knowing his own book again, a prosecution for copy-right need not be apprehended. The most that even a reader with a good memory could say, would be, that there is nothing new in it; and though we have so expressed ourselves a hundred time, novels are pouring forth as fast as ever! We therefore not without suspicions that this our scheme has been anticipated, and is already in practice; for, as far as recollection can reach, the characters, situations, plots, and catastrophes, are, with very few exceptions, still the same.

h/t James Raven for including quotes from this review in The Business of Books.

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