Publishers have got to live, like anyone else, and you cannot blame them for advertising their wares, but the truly shameful feature of literary life before the war was the blurring of the distinction between advertisement and criticism. A number of the so-called reviewers, and especially the best-known ones, were simply blurb writers. The ‘screaming’ advertisement started some time in the nineteen-twenties, and as the competition to take up as much space and use as many superlatives as possible became fiercer, publishers’ advertisements grew to be an important source of revenue to a number of papers. The literary pages of several well-known papers were practically owned by a handful of publishers, who had their quislings planted in all the important jobs. These wretches churned forth their praise—‘masterpiece’, ‘brilliant’, ‘unforgettable’ and so forth—like so many mechanical pianos. A book coming from the right publishers could be absolutely certain not only of favourable reviews, but of being placed on the ‘recommended’ list which industrious book borrowers would cut out and take to the library the next day.
If you published books at several different houses you soon learned how strong the pressure of advertisement was. A book coming from a big publisher, who habitually spent large sums on advertisement, might get fifty or seventy-five reviews: a book from a small publisher might get only twenty. I knew of one case where a theological publisher, for some reason, took it into his head to publish a novel. He spent a great deal of money on advertising it. It got exactly four reviews in the whole of England, and the only full-length one was in a motoring paper, which seized the opportunity to point out that the part of the country described in the novel would be a good place for a motoring tour. This man was not in the racket, his advertisements were not likely to become a regular source of revenue to the literary papers, and so they just ignored him.
Even reputable literary papers could not afford to disregard their advertisers altogether. It was quite usual to send a book to a reviewer with some such formula as, ‘Review this book if it seems any good. If not, send it back. We don’t think it’s worthwhile to print simply damning reviews.’
Naturally, a person to whom the guinea or so that he gets for the review means next week’s rent is not going to send the book back. He can be counted on to find something to praise, whatever his private opinion of the book may be.
In America even the pretence that hack reviewers read the books they are paid to criticize has been partially abandoned. Publishers, or some publishers, send out with review copies a short synopsis telling the reviewer what to say. Once, in the case of a novel of my own, they mis-spelt the name of one of the characters. The same mis-spelling turned up in review after review. The so-called critics had not even glanced into the book—which, nevertheless, most of them were boosting to the skies.
For example, if you say anything damaging about British imperialism, you are playing into the hands of Dr Goebbels. If you criticize Stalin you are playing into the hands of the Tablet and the Daily Telegraph. If you criticize Chiang Kai-Shek you are playing into the hands of Wang Ching-Wei—and so on, indefinitely.
Objectively this charge is often true. It is always difficult to attack one party to a dispute without temporarily helping the other. Some of Gandhi’s remarks have been very useful to the Japanese. The extreme Tories will seize on anything anti-Russian, and don’t necessarily mind if it comes from Trotskyist instead of right-wing sources. The American imperialists, advancing to the attack behind a smoke-screen of novelists, are always on the look-out for any disreputable detail about the British Empire. And if you write anything truthful about the London slums, you are liable to hear it repeated on the Nazi radio a week later. But what, then, are you expected to do? Pretend there are no slums?
Everyone who has ever had anything to do with publicity or propaganda can think of occasions when he was urged to tell lies about some vitally important matter, because to tell the truth would give ammunition to the enemy. During the Spanish Civil War, for instance, the dissensions on the Government side were never properly thrashed out in the left-wing press, although they involved fundamental points of principle. To discuss the struggle between the Communists and the Anarchists, you were told, would simply give the Daily Mail the chance to say that the Reds were all murdering one another. The only result was that the left-wing cause as a whole was weakened. The Daily Mail may have missed a few horror stories because people held their tongues, but some all-important lessons were not learned, and we are suffering from the fact to this day.