Today is “Grab Bag” day here at Entertainment Legends Revealed, where each week we feature a different area of the world of arts and entertainment (that is not featured on the other four days of the week, that is). Each week you will see grab bag legends from one of these following 25 “Grab Bag” categories (I might expand the list in the future, but for now, we’re sticking with these 25).
This is the third in a series of examinations of legends related to novels and their authors and whether they are true or false.
NOVEL LEGEND: Charles Dickens was paid by the word.
STATUS: Misleading Enough for a False
Reader Audrey sent in this one awhile back, and it’s a very popular one – the notion that noted novelist Charles Dickens was paid by the word for his work.
This one is a bit tricky, as I suppose depending on the way you look at it, you could make some sort of argument to that effect, but I think it is such a stretch that it is effectively so misleading that “false” is still the best option.
You see, Dickens’ work was initially released, like many other writers, in serial form before then being collected into a novel and sold as one big story.
Most of Dickens’ early works were serialized in the literary magazine, Bentley’s Miscelleny, where Dickens was an editor for a time.
It was here that the standard format of Dickens’ novels were established, a format that he would bring over to later publishers, as well.
Dickens would produce 20 chapters, which would be released one chapter (contaning 32 pages of text and 2 pages of drawings) at a time for one shilling each. The last installment would have chapters 19-20 together and would be two shillings.
He followed this format fairly sternly, and since he was paid by the installment, I suppose that there is something to be said for the fact that, since he “had” to do at least 20 chapters that “had” to be 32 pages each, then that he was being paid by how much he produced.
That said, how’s that different from any serialized writer? Is a comic book writer “paid by the word”? Is a TV series writer? You could make the argument, but it is so misleading that I think it’s effectively false. If he were actually paid differently depending on how many words he wrote, then yeah, it’s fair to say he was paid by the word. But he wasn’t – so long as he produced 32 pages of text, he was paid.
Granted, that likely DID result in him “padding” his stories a bit, but do note that since the public were following these stories monthly, he had to be certain to keep them entertaining enough that the readers would keep buying the next installment, so it’s not like there was giant chunks of filler designed just to add more words.
And since the term seems to be specifically addressed to Dickens as though his arrangement is somehow different than, say, a magazine writer being told “give me 5,000 words on Topic X,” I think it’s fair to say that it is misleading enough for a false.
Thanks to Audrey for the question!
NOVEL LEGEND: The Central Intelligence Agency aided Boris Pasternak’s Nobel Prize chances in 1958.
STATUS: I’m Going With True
While he began work on it decades earlier, it was not until after World War II that Boris Pasternak seriously began to devote time to finishing his novel, which ultimately became known as Doctor Zhivago, about a man torn between two women during the Russian Revolution and the Civil War that followed.
The story is now best known for the epic film adaptation by David Lean during the 1960s…
but in 1958, the year following its release, it was also noteworthy for winnings its author the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Sadly, due to disapproval from the Soviet Union, where Pasternak and his family lived, Pasternak was forced to turn down the Nobel Prize.
Initially, he received the news of his award with great interest, sending a telegram (after being informed of his victory) that he was “Immensely thankful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed” but a few days later he wrote another one, “Considering the meaning this award has been given in the society to which I belong, I must reject this undeserved prize which has been presented to me. Please do not receive my voluntary rejection with displeasure.”
This was because the novel was seen as somewhat derogatory toward the Communist view on life. It was banned from the Soviet Union, and in fact, after Pasternak’s death in 1960, his mistress, Olga Ivinskaya (who may have been the inspiration for the Lara character in Zhivago), and their daughter, were later sent to prison for allegedly receiving money from the sale of Doctor Zhivago outside the Soviet Union. That’s how hardcore the Soviets were about this book.
So, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was that interested in helping the book get MORE notice outside the USSR!
You see, Pasternak originally tried to get the book published in Russia, but he also sent out a few copies to friends in Europe. One friend got him into contact with an Italian publisher who ultimately was the one who published the novel (and translations were made from this Italian publication).
Even before it was published, Pasternak’s novel was condemned by Soviet authorities.
But AFTER it was published – hoo boy, they were not happy campers. The book was a sensation – a critical and commercial success, translated and published into many different non-Communist bloc countries, including the United States of America.
So when it came time for the Nobel Prize Committte to pick the winner for the Nobel Prize for Literature, well, Pasternak was a leading contender. In fact, Pasternak had already been nominated from 1946-1950 for his poetry, so his name was already well known.
There was just one “problem” – there was no version of the book in the original Russian! And while there is no specific rule against books being considered only on their translations, it certainly was frowned upon.
This is where the CIA stepped in, according to Ivan Tolstoy’s just released (in Russia) book on the topic, as they had intercepted a copy of the original Russian manuscript (one of the copies Pasternak had sent to friends in Europe) and made copies.
Now, with the deadline for the Nobel Prize coming soon, a Russian version was mysteriously published by an unknown publishing house and sent to the Nobel Prize Committee. Pasternak’s Italian publisher believed that the CIA arranged for it to be published. So did the KGB in the USSR, as since-released memos have revealed.
With their records on the matter sealed, it’s difficult to ever prove it to a certainty, but I think Tolstoy has collected enough evidence over the past thirty years to present a convincing case that the CIA did, indeed, help the process along a bit.
Pasternak’s son, though, is irritated at the notion, stating that all they did was move it up a bit, as a Russian edition ended up being published the next year (not in the USSR, but by the University of Michigan), so Pasternak likely would have just won the award the NEXT year. Pasternak’s son, by the way, ended up accepting Pasternak’s Nobel Prize in 1989 – more than thirty years after it was awarded, and almost thirty years after Pasternak passed away.
Doctor Zhivago was finally released in the Soviet Union in 1988.
NOVEL LEGEND: Graham Greene came in second in a contest to parody Graham Greene’s writing style.
Graham Greene was a popular and critically acclaimed novelist, playwright, screenwriter and critic during the 20th Century (he was born in 1904 and died in 1991).
Many of his works have been turned into films.
Perhaps the most famous movie based on a Graham Greene story is Carol Reed’s The Third Man…
While his works tended to be quite serious in nature, Greene also had a sense of humor about himself.
This was especially noted in 1949, when the British magazine, The New Statesman (below is a recent cover)…
ran a contest asking readers to submit their best parodies of Greene’s writing style.
Greene sent in a few entries himself under pseudonyms. One of them, a “N. Wilkinson,” won second prize! Greene’s entry was the first few paragraphs from an unfinished novel he had been working on somewhat recently.
Years later, that unfinished work, The Stranger’s Hand, was turned into a film of the same name!
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org