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H. G. Wells in Middle Age

H. G. Wells makes a good role model for the commercially inclined genre writer. (Photo: public domain)

When I first began writing seriously in the early 1990s, I took to reading literary biographies as a way of defining myself as a writer. I was thrilled to find how quickly I recognized my own struggles in the lives of famous authors. I also saw the shared personality traits that prompt certain kinds of people to explore the possibilities of living the artist’s life. Nothing strengthens and focusses an emerging identity more than the chance to identify thoroughly with others who are already there and have blazed the trail, so to speak.

While of limited use to dedicated literary writers, any would-be author who aspires to sell well and achieve wide popularity and respect can profit from studying the life of H. G. Wells. If you wrestle with the common conflict over whether to go literary or commercial with your writing, Wells will prove especially interesting as he wrote, with varying degrees of success, across a number of genres including sci-fi thrillers, novels of ideas, and serious literary novels. The commercial and literary options seemed mutually exclusive to me and trying to decide which way to go affected my writing for years with first one side and then the other gaining ascendency. In the end, I borrowed a page from Wells’ book. I now wrestle with novels of ideas finding such works to be a satisfying blend of entertaining story and worthwhile philosophical musing.

I tackled Wells by reading Lovat Dickson’s modest biography of the author made immortal by his readers. Dickson’s illuminating portrait inspired the following thoughts and identifications.

Like all the other writers whose biographies I have read, I found many things in Wells that remind me of myself. Apparently, Wells had a streak of paranoia in his make-up. Dickson writes, “This paranoidal tendency to feel himself persecuted and misunderstood had been present in him always, but in this year or two before the war came to distract attention, it intensified and was responsible for much of his difficulties of temper and his swings between wild optimism and despair.” As a somewhat paranoid manic-depressive, I find Wells’ mood swings interesting. The more literary biographies I read, the more “normal” I feel. I have slowly come to realize that I am a rare bird, but far from a unique one. There are other people out there like me.

Another one of Wells traits I definitely share is his scepticism. Dickson tells us, “What makes Wells so interesting a figure is his constant questioning, his sceptical attitude to all accepted dogma.” Wells was an advocate of the scientific worldview who, in the course of his life, found himself in the midst of heated debates over the merits and demerits of emerging European socialism, militant Fascism, collectivist Bolshevism, and established capitalism. Both fascinated and irritated by the haggling, Wells inevitably made use of big “I” ideas in his works. As I noted above, while I initially planned otherwise, I have ended up in the same boat.

As he neared mid-life, Wells moved away from writing character novels in favour of idea novels. In fact, he never really settled down to exclusively writing “art” novels, often keeping them going as background projects instead. Dickson points out that it took Wells a long time to produce a literary novel, whereas he could bang out the idea novels at the rate of two a year. Wells’ preference for the novel of ideas seems motivated by financial considerations. He admitted he wrote these “educational” volumes hastily and with little thought for the quality of the prose. One can easily understand the temptation to go this route. Not only could Wells write more novels this way, but such books also sold better than his literary works and attracted much wider attention. They earned him more of the fame he seemed to crave, as well as larger sums of money. Wells had need of such worldly trappings for he was a social climber, a philanderer, and extraordinarily ambitious.

Wells paid a steep price for his choices. Critics regard with deep suspicion all writers who dabble in popular genres such as science fiction. Character novels trump novels of ideas. The literary opinion-makers have denied him any real credibility as a first rate author. Making a lot of money, as Wells did, can be a big mistake if literary reputation is what you crave. This is not necessarily an injustice. I have argued myself that the distinction between literature and genre fiction is generally sound. Since they so often earn little from their writings, there must be some reward for the extra pains taken by literary writers. Making literature an exclusive “club” where reputation is everything and the awards are prestigious in the extreme offers compensation for the frequent lack of substantial remuneration. There are exceptions, but choosing literature means going for the glory instead of the cash. Wells chose the cash.

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