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Pennies for his verse: “The Distressed Poet” (1736) by William Hogarth


The Distressed Poet of William Hogarth’s popular print is a sorry figure. The bill for the milk is unpaid, the baby grizzles for want of a fire, the dog is about to make off with the joint, and his wife is mending already much-mended trousers. He should be industriously scribbling — a penny ballad, a pamphlet — and earning enough to see off the milkmaid brandishing her bill at the garret door. But here he is scratching his head and frowning out of the window, while scrap paper piles up under the table. The engraving appeared with verses from Alexander Pope:

Studious he sate, with all his books around,
Sinking from thought to thought, a vast profund!
Plung’d for his sense but found no bottom there,
Then writ, and flounder’d on, in mere despair.

The Distressed Poet made his appearance in print in 1736. He was still there, in the same attitude and in want of money and inspiration, in 1836. By 1936 his quill pen had become a typewriter. In 2016, it is a MacBook.

The precarious business of making a living from one’s pen is the subject of D.J. Taylor’s The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England since 1918. Taylor sets out to answer a series of questions: “What is ‘literary culture’?”; “What is taste?”; “Why in the English 20th century did certain kinds of writing prosper only for others to fall by the wayside?”; “Why did certain critics succeed in forming or altering the opinions of the literary public and others fail?” The most engaging question — though Taylor doesn’t put it in quite such vulgar terms — is: “How much?”

How much for a book review? How much for a first novel? How much for the film rights? How much for a man of letters to sacrifice his dignity — as Kingsley Amis did — to advertise wallpapers and home furnishings?

The question “How much?” is of particular interest to me a year after leaving a well-paid newspaper job with prospects, pension and private medical insurance, for freelance writing. As I sat down to write this review, an email arrived from an editor on a woman’s glossy magazine apologising for the “genuinely pathetic amount of money” they were able to pay.

The question posed by Taylor after “How much?” is “For how much longer?” With rates for journalism so low (£100 for a 700- word review in the Independent, according to Taylor — and the print edition of that newspaper has folded since The Prose Factory was published) and getting lower (one broadsheet has cut its rate from 45p a word to 35p in the last six months, according to my payment slips) and with the average professional author earning £11,000 a year, according to the Author’s Licensing and Collecting Society, how sustainable is it to flounder on with a career in writing?

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Bob Driver
March 11th, 2016
5:03 PM
In too many commentaries, the term "writer" ignores the thousands of journalists, copywriters, scriptwriters, editors, paid bloggers,and others who - mostly through their familiarity and skill with words - manage to pay off the milkmaid (and more) every day. Maybe we should scrap the idea of what constitutes a "real writer" and substitute "wordsmith," a term that potentially contains and embraces just as much honor as "writer."

Eric MacDonald
March 9th, 2016
8:03 PM
Interesting review of an obviously very engaging volume. I do not question whether the book lags where FR Leavis is discussed, but I have to take exception to the characterisation of Leavis as having "no ear, no taste, no judgement." In fact, Leavis was a great success in teaching people about literature and why it is important. I can't imagine anyone thinking otherwise.

J.J. Mumm
March 9th, 2016
3:03 PM
Indeed. We're all struggling to make sense of a digitally disrupted world, where the old patterns and protocols of business no longer maintain OR sustain. One response is embodied in a web page I received recently via anonymous email (think about that for a moment) that apparently is a bit of a hit at Berkeley, Oxford and Deep Springs College (the latter for reasons you can deduce from the title of the work). In any case, I think the "writer" is on to something though I'm not sure quite what yet. Judge for yourself: www.ghostwrit.net J.J. Mumm

Frank Freeman
March 9th, 2016
11:03 AM
Great review! I'll have to read this book when it comes out over here across the pond. I am not a full-time writer but $2000 last year was not much even for a part-timer. So why do we do it? Sometimes I think it's an illness, other times, what else would one want to do? Thanks for the humorous quotes, too, especially the one about Leavis.

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