‘Just a pen, paper, and a little thought’: E. M. Forster and literary labour

Bryony Armstrong


In his New Year’s Eve journal entry in 1904, E. M. Forster lamented: ‘I’m not good enough to do with regular work’. Several decades later, he said with an air of nonchalance in a BBC radio broadcast that, ‘professionally, I am a writer’. This article examines Forster’s uneasy relationship with literary labour, and analyses its manifestation in three of his fictional authors: aspiring writer Rickie Elliot and his aunt Emily Failing in The Longest Journey (1907), and the critically neglected novelist, Miss Lavish, in A Room with a View (1908). I contextualise Forster’s long trajectory of authorial worry with the Victorian labour theories of Carlyle and Ruskin dismissed by Forster’s own generation, and the startling growth of the Edwardian literary market which compounded cultural anxieties surrounding the figure of the ‘potboiler’. By appraising Forster’s fictional juxtaposition of research and inspiration, proactivity and inactivity, and algorithm and artistry in the writing process, I argue that his ironic presentation of the productive potboiler and the inactive, artistic writer is nuanced, complex, and at times self-deprecating, opening up a way of rethinking his ‘professional’ trajectory and his representations of labour. 


Literary labour; potboiler; artistry; bestseller; Edwardian; professional; authorship; writing

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