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Edward Garnett, an ‘Uncommon Reader’

11 December 2017

From The Wall Street Journal:

The honor roll of truly great modern literary enablers is a short one. T.S. Eliot had Ezra Pound, who cut “The Waste Land” down from a flabby hodgepodge into the allusively lean masterpiece we know. Samuel Beckett, teaching English in Paris, was inspired to try his hand at non-academic writing by another Irish iconoclast, James Joyce. William Faulkner had Sherwood Anderson to convince him to stop wasting time on poetry and start writing novels about his native Mississippi. Well before that, though, Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, John Galsworthy, May Sinclair, Sarah Orne Jewett, Edward Thomas, T.E. Lawrence, Arnold Bennett, E.M. Forster, H.E. Bates, Liam O’Flaherty and Sean O’Faolain all had Edward Garnett, a talent scout with an almost unerring nose for what we now recognize as the modernist note. Never before or since has one mentor been so influential in shaping the direction of English letters—not just for his own age, but beyond.

. . . .

Born in 1868 into a bookish middle-class Victorian family (his father was a librarian at London’s British Museum), Garnett had an extraordinary influence upon the creation and reception of some key works of the next century. Though Garnett started out with his own literary aspirations—he attempted both novels and plays, all daringly experimental and each an unmitigated flop—what allowed him to make his mark on English literature was his day job as publisher’s reader, first at T. Fisher Unwin, and later at Heinemann, Duckworth and Cape. In this capacity, Ms. Smith reports, he assessed about 700 manuscripts submitted for publication each year.

. . . .

In the days before professional literary agents had become commonplace, Garnett served many authors as promoter—bullying magazines to take their work and placing puffs in the national press—and as agony uncle and writing coach. Two of Ms. Smith’s chapters are called “Rescuing Conrad” and “Fishing Out Lawrence” (D.H., not T.E.).

. . . .

Ms. Smith notes wryly that as an editor Garnett adapted his approach “to the temperament of the protégé, reassuring the timid, cajoling the reluctant and bellowing at the bloody-minded.” Joseph Conrad, whom Garnett met when the sailor-novelist submitted the manuscript of his first book, “Almayer’s Folly,” to Unwin in 1894, needed to be constantly reassured and cajoled. Garnett saw that the highly strung Conrad, though still actively seeking a new berth on a ship, really “desire[d] to be encouraged to write.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Here’s a link to An Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett, Mentor and Editor of Literary Genius


2 Comments to “Edward Garnett, an ‘Uncommon Reader’”

  1. Where do I find me one of these genii? I need “to be constantly reassured and cajoled,” and no one seems interested in the task.

    ‘Course, as an introvert, I would never ask.

  2. Joshua Slocum was assigned a young associate at the Century Magazine to help him work his prose into something worth serializing. Without the patient labor of Robert Johnson, we would not now have the archetype of modern-day sailing books, “Sailing Alone Around the World”.

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