Sunday, January 07, 2007

Arnold Bennett meets James Brand Pinker

A cool Saturday morning in November 1901. Arnold Bennett, on the recommendation of HG Wells, had an important engagement on Arundel Street, at 10.30.

He had taken the train from West Kensington to Temple, then the gloomiest station on the District Railway. Bennett hurried as he reached the entrance to Effingham House.Up four granite steps, he passed through a pair of swinging doors. Four more granite steps and another pair of swinging doors. Bennett found himself in a huge marble hall. The lift cabinet which stood in front of the broad staircase looked just like a confessional, he thought to himself.On the walls, there were great tablets inscribed with many names in gold letters. Bennett scanned the tablets and eventually found what he was looking for. "James Brand Pinker, Literary Agent" under the heading "Third Floor".

The third floor was a world of its own. An arrow with the legend "James Brand Pinker, Literary Agent" directed him along a corridor to a corner where another arrow, with the exact same legend, pointed along yet another corridor. The merry din of typewriters grew louder.Finally, Bennett found himself in front of a glass door. There was the legend again, painted in what he would describe as "a graceful curve". Through the opaque glass he could see vague movements. He bit his teeth.

Bennett entered. Two smart women in tight and elegant bodices, with fluffy bows at the backs of their necks, looked up from their typewriters. The blonde, knowing to expect him, introduced herself as Miss Barton, and asked Bennett to take a seat for a moment.He absorbed his surroundings. A Turkish carpet, beautiful almanacs on the walls. In the corner, a blue and white tea service sat on a Japanese table. All over the place were massive piles of manuscripts of all shapes and descriptions. All had one thing in common: an impressive looking label, "James Brand Pinker, Literary Agent".

Bennett’s own manuscript felt so small, he could hardly feel it under his arm. After a couple of minutes, Miss Barton returned, and led him to Mr. Pinker’s office.There was Pinker. A short, sturdy, clean-shaven individual with a plump ruddy face and close-cropped whitening hair. He sat in a Chippendale chair at a carved oak table. Above him, a highly ornamental ceiling, in the centre of which was a superb electric chandelier. Bennett thought to himself, "Is this a business office? Or is it a club?"

Pinker beamed at Bennett."Come in and be seated, won’t you?" he said in a hoarse voice that was almost a whisper.He stood, and gave Bennett an old-fashioned handshake that was virtually shoulder high. Pinker looked pleased with himself, dressed in his grey frock coat; on his desk a grey top hat. Presently, he would be driving four-in-hand to Windsor.

"Now, what can I do for you?" he said abruptly, as he offered Bennett a Teofani cigarette."M-m-Mr. Wells has advised, nay, c-c-commanded me to come to you. He told me that the t-t-time has come for me to put the whole of my affairs into your h-h-hands. William Colles whom you undoubtedly know, has been my agent since 1898, but he has been of very little use to me. He has continually f-f-failed to acknowledge receipt of stories. He’s failed to sell them. I’ve even myself had to advise h-h-him where to sell them."

Pinker sat with an interested expression, and said "Oh"."I understand that in the few short years that you’ve been in this business, you have done m-m-miraculous things for a number of authors.""Yes," replied Pinker modestly, "you might say that I make careers."

"I am a prolific writer, sir. My first novel, "A Man from the North" was published in 1898. Since that t-t-time, I’ve written a sensational novel called "Love and Life", three one-act plays, entitled "Polite Farces", a s-s-series of essays, and a couple of plays with Arthur Hooley. One day, I’m going to be a lucrative property.And during this period, I’ve also been the Editor of Wo-o-oman", no mean accomplishment, I’ll t-t-tell you!"

"I’ve heard a lot about you, Mr. Bennett. Indeed, I’ve read some of your stuff myself," said Pinker, as he rose to stoke the blazing fire."I like what I see." He paused.My policy, sir, is that I ask you to write what you want to write. I’ll sell it, and take ten percent".

Thus began one of the most successful business relationships in the history of literature.JB Pinker’s list of clients read like a veritable roll-call of all the late Victorian and Edwardian writers. Arnold Bennett was undoubtedly his most successful. From 1901 to 1922 when Pinker died, Bennett wrote a total of over 2,600 letters to him in the course of doing business. Many wondered how he ever managed to find the time to write anything else. Bennett suffered greatly from his stammer, and he lived in Paris for many years. It was obviously less painful for him to correspond than to discuss his fiction face to face.

Joseph Conrad became a very close friend to Pinker. He appreciated that without JB’s substantial financial support over many lean years, he might not have written his great books. JB and Conrad endured many crises in their relationship, but their mutual respect held them together. Conrad depended so much on Pinker’s support that he was conditioned to ask:"Is it possible, JyB, for my wife to have a new coat?"Pinker literally managed Conrad’s finances, paying for everything from cigars and hotel rooms to the milk bills.

Stephen Crane, during his tragically short period in England, held wild parties, with caviar and champagne, for his literary entourage, at poor Pinker’s expense, and died before Pinker was able to see a reasonable return on his investment.

The Master, Henry James came to Pinker late in his career. Pinker sorted out the mess, and James was suddenly able to build his gazebo, and buy "bits" of China, thanks to Pinker.

DH Lawrence, for whom Pinker acted for seven years, only wrote to JB in moments of exasperation, and owed more to him than he was prepared to admit. Lawrence had no time for the business side of writing; he called Pinker "that little parvenu snob of a procurer of books".

JB was an old friend and neighbour of HG Wells, and helped him buy his home in Worcester Park. Wells became one of Pinker’s first clients, and Pinker increased his income substantially, although he later had a public argument with Arnold Bennett over the benefits of Pinker.

Compton Mackenzie said that he owed much to Pinker’s enthusiasm for his work.Oscar Wilde said: "It was simply the fatal attraction of his name that made me pin my faith in him."The attraction of his name to Virginia Woolf, though not a client, was such that she called her dog Pinker.

There were many others. Ford Madox Ford; John Galsworthy; George Gissing; Violet Hunt; ASM Hutchinson; Aldous Huxley, James Joyce; Basil King; Thomas Mann; Somerset Maugham, Stephen McKenna; Frederick Rolfe; George Bernard Shaw; Edith Somerville; "Martin" Ross; Osbert Sitwell, Frank Swinnerton; Sir Hugh Walpole and CN Williamson.For some inexplicable reason, Rudyard Kipling, A Conan Doyle and JB Pinker did not cross paths.Ford Madox Ford appreciated the significance of Pinker:"You could have little idea of what the literary world was like unless you imagine that man looming always somewhere in the background of lettered thoughts."

James Brand Pinker established himself as a literary agent in mid January 1896. When he died twenty six years later in New York, he was widely acknowledged as the greatest agent of his time. In his will, JB left £40,000. His most prolific client, Arnold Bennett left £36,000 in his.

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Literary Agents

Feedback 2/12/06 from Aneeta Sundararaj on How To Tell A Great Story
10:12:16, Categories: Literary Stuff, 185 words Aneeta
Walk where no man has before…
Pioneers come in so many different forms. And today, I had a surprise reply from Martin Pinker, whose ancestor, James Brand Pinker, “was one of the first literary agents, and many famous authors at the turn of the twentieth century successfully marketed their work through him.”
I visited Martin’s site and what an interesting account he gave of the conversation between Arnold Bennett and James B. Pinker. I would recommend reading it. It’s fascinating.
Martin mentions an article in Guardian by Robert McCrum where he writes about the reluctance of people in the publishing industry to accept the role of the literary agent. He ends with
One thing is certain: the literary agenting business is now where the real action is in the lawless jungle of the book world.
The thing is, from reading Martin’s account, is seems possible that the British authors of yester-year already knew the value of an agent and it took the industry close to 100 years to accept and realise this? I wonder how long it will take for the rest-of-the-world-authors to accept this? Or have they already ...

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