Literally critical!

Tomorrow, another one of poet Tallis Steelyard’s intriguing adventures will hit the virtual shelves. In honor of the event, here he is to talk about the life of a literary critic:

It is true that looking back I have had an interesting career. Indeed there is much I have achieved that I can look back upon with a sense of modest pride. There are very few incidents I feel disinclined to recall to mind and few about which I feel any real shame. But because I feel a duty to a younger generation of poets and other writers, I believe it behoves me to set aside my regrets, my mortification, and tell the plain unvarnished story. You see, I too have dabbled in literary criticism; I have dipped my pen in its unhallowed waters.

Now I don’t want anyone to assume that I did this because I was pandering to some unfathomable malevolence within my nature. No I did it for the most honourable of all reasons; we needed the money.

On reflection, one sees that within the life of even a great artist there are times which appear designed purely to test your mettle. This was one. Shena had not been well, she had caught something she just couldn’t seem to shake off, and she spent much of the winter confined to the barge. This meant that our income dropped considerably, we were faced with having to heat the barge during the day, and what reserves we had were waning rapidly. I had attempted to take her place dealing with the shore combers, but frankly I never made a tenth of what Shena did, and what I did make was purely because some of their number took pity on me and shared my desire to see her fit and well and back at work.

Then Silac Glicken approached me. He is the nephew of both Ardwok and Truly Glicken, the two brothers who ran ‘Glickens Printers.’ He was the son of their older sister and given that he worked for his uncles and neither of them had any children of their own, he looked like he would inherit the business in the course of time. This was fair enough, he was a decent enough young man and a hard worker.

But I confess to being a little surprised when he approached me; especially as he slipped quietly into the barge to see me rather than catching me when I was out and about. I sat him down and gave him coffee, Shena waved weakly at him from her seat by the stove. Silac went straight to business.

“Tallis, I’ve been toying with an idea. I was contemplating producing a literary news sheet.”

I nodded sagely, which I felt was expected of me. “Well there is already the Port Naain Literary Review.”

“Yes, but it’s expensive, thick and I’ve been told that it is pretty turgid at times. I was thinking of trying something different, it would be one sheet of paper, but folded into half so there are four ‘pages’ and I’d produce it every week. I can pretty well guarantee a page of advertising, and I’ve got someone to write the editorials, but I wanted somebody to do about two pages of literary criticism, to review anything that’s been produced in the previous week.”

“Literary criticism, that’s an awfully delicate field. Charlon Drane gets away with it because he’s established, beholden to nobody and has a steady income from his Port Naain Literary Review and doesn’t need to pander to patrons.”

Now it was Silac’s turn to nod sagely. “I’ve considered that. I thought that both you and the editor would be anonymous. That would allow the reviews to be suitably outrageous, and that in turn would drive up sales.”

I pondered the business model that had been so brazenly revealed to me. The fact that he was telling me indicated that he wanted me to be part of it, so obviously I felt entitled to generous recompense. There are times when it pays to be subtle, to prod gently to lure information out of your prey, but I’d known Silac for too long.

“So who is to be editor, and if I am the critic, how much do you intend to pay me?”

At this point he blushed. “Suzaine said that she would be editor and write what she wants to call, ‘Notes from a lady.’”

Now Suzaine is the granddaughter of a patron of mine, Mistress Hanchkillian. The old lady is no fool, and head of a rich and numerous family, almost a clan. From my point of view their strong point is that they do seem to have a genuine love of literature and the arts, and more importantly are willing to sustain this love with money. Also, and to the point, Suzaine and Silac seemed to be totally besotted with each other. This encouraged me to probe further; perhaps there was Hanchkillian money behind the project.

“So how much do you intend to pay me?”

Silac paused, and said, “Well.” In my experience this is never a good sign. He continued. “It’s Suzaine and my idea, and the budget is best considered exiguous. We have put together a few alars which will cover the paper for the first couple of issues. You two will write the thing, I’ll set up the formes and then one evening you can give me a hand physically printing it when the lads have gone home. Suzaine will also advertise it in the circles she moves in so I hope we’ll sell a couple of hundred copies.”

I sat silent, it was an interesting scheme, and Silac continued, “Then any money we make, after we’ve deducted the cost of the paper, we split into three equal parts.”

Shena said, “I think it’s time for my medicine dear, could you bring it to me.”

Given that she didn’t have any medicine, I poured a little Urlan plum brandy into a glass, added some honey and boiling water and took it to her. She sipped it and whispered, “It doesn’t sound a bad deal.”

I whispered back, “And I think I can trust them both.”

I turned back to Silac. “Yes, I’ll do it.”

Hence the ‘Port Naain Re-evaluation of Literature’ was born.

***

To be honest, it was easier than I thought. A lot of poets and others get their printing done at Glickens. This is due in part to the quality of the work, the good service and the care taken. It is also due to the fact that Ardwok Glicken who is the brother who oversees the printing is an excellent printer, frugal to an extreme, and is perfectly happy to let a poet print his works on offcuts of paper, so long as the poet himself does the time consuming trimming. Hence Silac could get me copies of everything they’d printed in the previous week. So with these, and the things I would normally hear during a week, I found it comparatively easy to get my two pages filled. I had taken to heart Silac’s comments about anonymity and the need to be scurrilous. So for example when discussing Trane Forsgill’s recent work, I described it as ‘elegantly bound, but perhaps sixteen pages overlong.’ Given that it was only sixteen pages long if you include the front and back covers, frontispiece and the engraving of Trane looking remarkably pompous, my comment caused some sniggers from those in the know.

Then there was my review of some reviews Jallan had done in the Port Naain Literary Review. These I described as ‘flaccid,’ commenting that Jallan had reserved his scorn for Timpton Lumber, mainly because he had just discovered that Lumber was sharing his mistress. Still I congratulated him on the acerbic tone he had taken in that instance and had implied that if he’d showed himself that assertive previously, his mistress might not have felt the need to seek consolation elsewhere.

Similarly Teasdell had delivered one of his ‘rustic suites’ to a reasonably well attended gathering where he had received applause which, if not rapturous, was at least enthusiastic. I was present and felt that while his work was good, he is totally lacking in presence. Hence in my review I pointed out that at various times during the proceedings guests were looking in entirely the wrong direction, assuming his words were coming from somebody hidden from their gaze by an array of indoor ferns. I suggested that it was obviously too late to teach him to declaim his work properly, but surely his hostess could at least insist he hire an actor to perform his verses for him.

I delivered my work to Silac one evening and he set up the formes, then the following evening he and I printed the page and Suzaine folded them and stacked them ready for distribution. As we printed I managed to read Suzaine’s piece, and frankly she had managed to be even more scathing than I had, hinting at sundry liaisons between persons of quality and various artists, as well as discussing in a scornful manner the catering disaster that one soiree had degenerated into. Finally, and I think cleverly, she had made positive comments about some entertainments and even praised some hostesses for their graciousness and wit.

Silac and I managed to print two hundred copies in an hour and all three of us felt we’d be lucky to sell that many. Next morning Silac distributed them to various newsboys who would take a small commission on every issue they sold. We’d set the price at forty-eight dregs. This is a tenth of what Charlon Drane charged for his publication, but ours was thinner, if more entertaining. That evening I got a note from Silac, we’d sold all two hundred copies. More importantly the note included three alars, bright shining gold, each one of which I’d have striven for a week for, and felt myself well paid at the end of it. The next week Silac and I worked manfully on the press and produced four hundred copies, and Suzaine had them all folded and ready to be sent out. By the end of the month Silac and Suzaine came to the barge looking serious. I poured them both coffee. Suzaine fussed around Shena, presenting her with a bottle of fortified wine that her Grandmother swore by for curing virtually everything, and then we got down to business. It was Silac who led the discussions.

“Tallis, we have a problem.” I composed my face to try and capture the look of a man who was downhearted but who was willing to strive to overcome adversity.

Silac continued, “We have got to the stage where the three of us cannot physically produce enough copies for sale. So I propose we have Glickens print it for us as a proper commercial arrangement. This will obviously mean we make less money for each copy, but I propose to print a thousand copies.”

I stared at him; I didn’t think the Port Naain Literary Review printed many more than that and it took three months to sell them all.

Silac continued further, “Also it has struck me that it is inevitable that somebody will start a paper in competition to us. At the very least, you two have managed to infuriate so many people, they’ll want a paper which supports them. So I propose that rather than wait for somebody else to come up with the idea, that we three would also produce the competitor.”

I think at this point my mouth was hanging open. Of his uncles, Truly was the one who had that spark of genius when it came to launching new, lucrative ventures. The other uncle, Ardwok was an excellent printer who could achieve real artistry at a very reasonable cost but left the financial magic to his brother. It struck me that Silac had managed to combine both traits in one person. I felt I was in the presence of the future, and it looked fiscally advantageous.

***

For the next few weeks we were very busy but we somehow muddled through. I would write two reviews of the same event, one glowing and one derisive. I would then put them in the appropriate box, one box was for the ‘Port Naain Re-evaluation of Literature’ and the other was for the Port Naain Guide to Literary Merit.’ Then I would pen a few reviews that would only appear in one of the two journals. But still it was a lot of work and I think our real deliverance was the advertisers. Whereas Silac had initially been happy to get one page, and that barely full, now both periodicals had two pages packed with eager advertisers who were delighted to pay the rates Silac charged them. Money rolled in. I joked to Silac that if it continued like this I might be earning enough to buy myself a sinecure. With that he became dreadfully serious.

“Do you think so?”

I pointed at the pile of coin he’d just split into three equal parts. “Silac, I’ve never earned so much money in my life. It’s meant that Shena has been able to take time to get well and not have to go back to her mud-jobbing before she was fit enough, we even have a cash reserve to fall back on.”

“But is it enough to impress somebody?”

There was something in his tone of voice that stopped me. Quietly I asked, “Impress who Silac?”

“Mistress Hanchkillian. She’s Suzaine’s grandmother. Suzaine and I want to marry, but her grandmother will have to approve of me. So I wanted to do something that would impress her. Will it?”

Now this was a difficult question. I think I knew my Patron as well as anybody. I liked her, admired her even, and certainly respected her. It struck me that Silac might well impress her, but not because he had a lot of money. I had no doubt that she could have bought ‘Glickens Printers’ out of the earnings from her country estates, without having to touch any of her investment income. Still, I felt Silac needed reassurance, and so I tried to reassure him.

“Well I think she’ll be impressed.”

“Good, Suzaine and I thought we’d run things for another month, make sure it’s running smoothly, and then I’ll formally approach her grandmother.”

Stop back tomorrow to find out what happens next!

(c) 2016. All rights reserved.

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