'Tristram is the fashion,' Laurence Sterne boasted, having just arrived in London in 1760 to taste the success of the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy. His glee seems understandable. This obscure Yorkshire clergyman, known as a wit only to a small circle of eccentric friends, had reached his mid-forties without achieving any kind of fame or affluence. He was unhappily married, bored with parish duties and ill-equipped to climb the ecclesiastical greasy pole, but his talents were finally being recognised. He had borrowed a large sum of money to print the first edition at his own cost, and now his peculiar confidence in the work's commercial potential was being vindicated. Unknown readers - 'the world' - appreciated him. Yet authors in his age were not supposed to display this sort of delight. Openly to enjoy commercial success was bad enough; openly to relish the bubbly business of public enthusiasm was audacious, even scandalous. Fashion was flagrantly not merit. Writers, if they were to be thought of as better than hired hands, were characters who cultivated some kind of superiority to fashion, publicity, even print itself. Sterne affected no such loftiness.
LRB 6 June 2002 | PDF Download