A critic, comic essayist, and film actor, Robert Benchley (1889-1945) often adopted the self-mocking persona of the common man--a "little man" who was baffled by everyday life and the behavior of others. In this review of two books on writing, Benchley uses an extended analogy to illustrate the distinctive method and style of each author.
Advice to Writers (1922)
by Robert Benchley
Two books have emerged from the hundreds that are being published on the art of writing. One of them is The Lure of the Pen, by Flora Klickmann, and the other is Learning to Write, a collection of [Robert Louis] Stevenson's meditations on the subject, issued by Scribners. At first glance one might say that the betting would be at least eight to one on Stevenson. But for real, solid, sensible advice in the matter of writing and selling stories in the modern market, Miss Klickmann romps in an easy winner.
It must be admitted that John William Rogers Jr., who collected the Stevenson material, warns the reader in his introduction that the book is not intended to serve as "a macadamized, mile-posted road to the secret of writing," but simply as a help to those who want to write and who are interested to know how Stevenson did it. So we mustn't compare it too closely with Miss Klickmann's book, which is quite frankly a mile-posted road, with little sub-headings along the side of the page such as we used to have in Fiske's Elementary American History. But Miss Klickmann will save the editors of the country a great deal more trouble than Stevenson's advice ever will. She is the editor of an English magazine herself, and has suffered.
Where Miss Klickmann enumerates the pitfalls which the candidate must avoid and points out qualities which every good piece of writing should have, Stevenson writes a delightful essay on "The Profession of Letters" or "A Gossip on Romance." These essays are very inspiring. They are too inspiring. They make the reader feel that he can go out and write like Stevenson. And then a lot of two-cent stamps are wasted and a lot more editors are cross when they get home at night.
On the other hand, the result of Miss Klickmann's book is to make the reader who feels a writing spell coming on stop and give pause. He finds enumerated among the horrors of manuscript-reading several items which he was on the point of injecting into his own manuscript with considerable pride. He may decide that the old job in the shipping-room isn't so bad after all, with its little envelope coming in regularly every week. As a former member of the local manuscript-readers' union, I will give one of three rousing cheers for any good work that Miss Klickmann may do in this field. One writer kept very busy at work in the shipping-room every day is a victory for literature. I used to have a job in a shipping-room myself, so I know.
If, for instance, the subject under discussion were that of learning to skate, Miss Klickmann might advise as follows:
- Don't try to skate if your ankles are weak.
- Get skates that fit you. A skate which can't be put on when you get to the pond, or one which drags behind your foot by the strap, is worse than no skate at all.
- If you are sure that you are ready, get on your feet and skate.
On the same subject, Scribners might bring to light something that Stevenson had written to a young friend about to take his first lesson in skating, reading as follows:
To know the secret of skating is, indeed, I have always thought, the beginning of winter-long pleasance. It comes as sweet deliverance from the tedium of indoor isolation and brings exhilaration, now with a swift glide to the right, now with a deft swerve to the left, now with a deep breath of healthy air, now with a long exhalation of ozone, which the lungs, like greedy misers, have cast aside after draining it of its treasure. But it is not health that we love nor exhilaration that we seek, though we may think so; our design and our sufficient reward is to verify our own existence, say what you will.There is, of course, plenty of good advice in the Stevenson book. But it is much better as pure reading matter than as advice to the young idea or even the middle-aged idea. It may have been all right for Stevenson to "play the sedulous ape" and consciously imitate the style of Hazlitt, Lamb, Montaigne and the rest, but if the rest of us were to try it there would result a terrible plague of insufferably artificial and affected authors, all playing the sedulous ape and all looking the part.
And so, my dear young friend, I would say to you: Open up your heart; sing as you skate; sing inharmoniously if you will, but sing! A man may skate with all the skill in the world; he may glide forward with incredible deftness and curve backward with divine grace, and yet if he be not master of his emotions as well as of his feet, I would say—and here Fate steps in—that he has failed.
On the whole, the Stevenson book makes good reading and Miss Klickmann gives good advice.
"Advice to Writers" appeared in Love Conquers All, by Robert Benchley, published in 1922.