Gordon Hirsch (University of Minnesota)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Locating RLS in relation to Brander Matthews and Walter Besant’s Theories of Literary Collaboration in the Production of Popular Fiction’

Stevenson scholars are likely to know that Stevenson’s “A Humble Remonstrance” was written as a response to Henry James’s “The Art of Fiction,” and they may also recall that James’s essay was itself a response primarily to Walter Besant’s lecture, with the same title as James’s essay, delivered on April 25, 1884 to the Royal Institution in London.

They are less likely to be aware, however, of the fact that Besant was also, along with the American collaborative novelist, Brander Matthews, one of the leading advocates and theorists of the practice of literary collaboration. Matthews’ “The Art and Mystery of Collaboration” was published in 1890, and Besant’s “On Literary Collaboration” was published in 1892. RLS’s major collaborative efforts with his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, are roughly contemporaneous, falling between 1887 and 1893. Matthews’ and Besant’s writings on the collaborative authorship of fiction reveal how much Stevenson had in common with these other popular, collaborative authors and theorists.

Besant and Matthews, for example, both presume that two is the optimal number of collaborators. They argue that collaborative books must seem to be “the creation of a single mind and the work of a single pen.” To achieve this, it is necessary for one collaborator to be the final authority, the decision-maker, of the pair—perhaps even the sole writer, the one actually putting pen to paper and producing text. Besant’s rationale for collaboration is one with which Stevenson would probably have agreed: “The chief advantage of collaboration is that it is tolerably certain to produce clearness of purpose, a well-defined plot, and distinct characters.” Both theorists doubt that collaboration will produce “any really great novel. Collaboration has [instead] served the cause of periodical literature”—popular fiction, in other words.

The theories of Matthews and Besant perhaps rely on somewhat mechanical methods aimed at producing a kind of literary workshop or school, and RLS might have demurred from some of their conclusions. Still, it seems clear that his collaboration with Osbourne involved rather more than merely keeping his stepson occupied, that he enjoyed discussing and planning works under construction, and that he willingly assigned certain character portraits and scenes to his stepson. Stevenson’s collaborations indicate a certain business-like practicality that is close to that of his contemporary practitioners and theorists.

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