You’ll ruin your eyes!

There’s a lot of discussion around the web on the issue of e-publishing and its role in the romance industry. I feel a little overwhelmed by it all, and if you have not become overwhelmed yet and are interested in future trends of the publishing business and literacy, start here.

So I thought I’d talk about the issue of living in an age of rapidly-changing technology with mind-boggling choices of receiving and disseminating information and finding entertainment. I’m talking, of course, about the Regency.

Georgian England was known for its high literacy level. There was an audience for reading and paper prices dropped at the end of the eighteenth century; at a guess, it’s because the amount of cotton manufacturing rose, and in an era where everything had its price, there were more rags around to convert into paper. By 1800, every town had its own printing press and there were 250 periodicals in print. Periodicals and newspapers were handed on to other readers an average of seven times per copy.

The first circulating library opened in Bath in 1725; this specifically English phenomenon for the well-heeled, with membership costing about 1 gn., had expanded by 1800 to 122 circulating libraries in London, and 268 in the provinces.Libraries accounted for 400 copies of a book’s average print run of 1,000.

To give an idea of the print life of a best seller of the Georgian era, this book (probably not in the genteel circulating libraries) was first published as a pamphlet between 1710 and 1716, and was in its fourth edition by 1718. Between 1718 and 1788, it had gone through eighteen editions, with the eighth and ninth printings selling more than 12,000 copies in a few months. Each edition grew, with additional salacious material: testimonials, requests for advice, and the author’s response to print rivals and attacks. The fourth edition contained 88 pages; the 15th edition (1730) had quadrupled in size.

This evolving conversation in print clearly struck a chord with the eighteenth-century reading public, an audience that both delighted in the moral instruction and refinement available in The Tatler and The Spectator and made sexy or scandalous fiction like Delarivier Manley’s The New Atalantis (1709) and Love in Excess by Eliza Haywood (1719) early best-sellers–and that continued to read Onania long after popular tastes in fiction changed to favor more refined novels like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740-1) and Haywood’s The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751). The early eighteenth-century reading audience was one that seemed eager to both read and write back to the literary marketplace, to both absorb and influence the products that marketplace had to offer them. Read more here.


Of course, fiction was suspect from the beginning. It encouraged its audience, predominantly female, to lounge around and daydream, beguiled by narrative seduction. If you weren’t careful, your womenfolk’s experiences might end up as anonymous contributors to the next edition of the bestseller of the 1700s; in 1792, Bon Ton Magazine warned that readers of novels really couldn’t distinguish between reality and fantasy: women of little experience are apt to mistake the urgency of bodily wants with the violence of a delicate passion.

Oliver Goldsmith commented in similar vein: How delusive, how destructive, are those pictures of consummate bliss. They teach the youthful mind to sigh after beauty and happiness which never existed, that despise that little good which fortune has mixed up in our cup, by expecting more than she ever gave.

In 1773, The Lady’s Magazine agonized, There is scarce a young lady in the kingdom who has not read with avidity a great number of romances and novels, which tend to vitiate the taste.

A fictional mother in The Lady’s Monthly Museum complained that her daughter reads nothing in the world but novels—nothing but novels, Madam, from morning to night… The maid is generally dispatched to the library two or three times in the day, to change books. One week she will read in the following order: Excessive Sensibility, Refined Delicacy, Disinterested Love, Sentimental Beauty, etc.

It’s particularly appropriate that we discuss the issues of mass literacy and mass market fiction today, because it’s the birthday of George Orwell, one of my literary heroes, a passionate, clear-sighted defender of clarity and good language use. So I’m ending this long and rambling post with Orwell’s six rules for good writing from his essay Politics and the English Language:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Many questions possible here–do you think, as I do, that we’re a reading audience, to borrow from my quote above, that is eager to both read and write back to the literary marketplace, to both absorb and influence the products that marketplace had to offer them?

If you’re a writer, what do you think of Orwell’s rules?

Do you own an e-reader? How do you feel about it? Do you prefer it to tree products? What do you think of print vs. digital?

Obligatory SSP: Contest on my site. Enter now!

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