FRICTION WITH THE MARKET: Henry James and the Profession of Authorship by Michael Anesko

FRICTION WITH THE MARKET: Henry James and the Profession of Authorship

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Some time ago, reviewing a new volume in the Paris Review Writers at Work series, Mario Puzo complained about the series' ivory-tower approach to writing and its failure to account for the meat-and-potatoes of contracts and earnings. Anesko has arrived on Henry James' revered doorstep, like a Harvard B-School grad armed with ledgers and spreadsheets, to rescue James from that ivory tower of pure art in which criticism has placed him. And a wonderful homage it is, scrupulously accounting for nearly every penny James earned. Despite legends of the James family wealth, Henry earned his own living by his literary labors until he was over 50. His part of the family inheritance had been assigned to his sister Alice and did not revert to him until her death when he was well into his middle years. Until then, James had been trying tirelessly to crack the American and British markets, even going so far as to write plays. But his theater adventures were a humiliating disaster, with him being booed by the audience. One effect of his finally becoming somewhat better off after Alice's death was the birth of his most convoluted (and unsalable) grand manner, as if his inheritance freed him at last truly to confine himself to the ivory tower. But this is a misleading view of the matter, since he strove for ""that benefit of friction with the market which is so true a one for solitary artists too much steeped in their mere personal dreams."" James' very final literary act, aside from his unfinished novel The Ivory Tower, was to spend two years shaping, revising and adding prefaces to Scribner's 24-volume New York Edition of his fiction, a labor wrung from him in the hopes of at last finding a market for his wares amid the larger book-buying public. He would haul in the readers! During that two-year period he wrote nothing new and earned little money. The New York Edition, when it came out, sank like a ton of rocks, and Anesko's picture of James unable to meet his New Year's bills because of the zero balance on Scribner's royalty statement is a moment of heartbreaking and horrible beauty. A wonderful corrective to the Writers at Work series.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1986
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press