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?
Certainly, Taylor has managed it so far, writing prolifically, unstoppably: reviews for the Guardian, Independent, TLS, Literary Review, Spectator, Wall Street Journal and Private Eye; collections of short stories; biographies of Thackeray and Orwell; and a half dozen books of criticism and literary and sporting history.
The Prose Factory is a spirited dash through British literary culture since the end of the First World War. It rarely lags, except perhaps when discussing Cambridge’s impenetrable F.R. Leavis, and that is Leavis’s fault, not Taylor’s. (“He has no ear, no taste, no judgment. How can a man who writes as he does teach anyone English?” was the verdict of publisher Rupert Hart-Davis.)
Each generation is ousted by the next: complacent Bloomsbury by Proles and Pinks; Bright Young Things by Angry Young Men (Iris Murdoch included by virtue of her political fury and, one assumes, her cropped hair); Booker Prize Big Beasts by the experimenters Zadie Smith, David Mitchell and Ali Smith.
In every age the question endures: can I pay the milkmaid/school fees/mortgage/bailiff?
When politeness dictates that we do not ask how much a man earns, there is a prurient pleasure to be had rifling through writers’ account books — and reading of the disobliging jobs they had to do to make ends meet. Julian Maclaren-Ross, for example, selling vacuum cleaners before the war. J.L. Carr, in a fallow period during the 1970s, reckoned he earned just 17 pence an hour. He paid the butcher’s bill in remaindered copies of his novel The Harpole Report.
Evelyn Waugh, mindful of the taxman, negotiated to have half of the $4,000 promised him by the American Good Housekeeping magazine, paid in the form of a new car, to be delivered to his house in Ireland.
His brother Alec Waugh, in a pinch for cash and commissions, took on commercial work: a life of Thomas Lipton, the tea importer, and a history of Gilbey’s, the wine merchants. Deliverance came when Twentieth Century Fox bought the film rights to his novel The Sugar Barons for $140,000.
Others had a less lucrative time of it. Cyril Connolly died with an overdraft of £27,000 in 1974 — a fate he had feared in his 1927 diary, when a young man of 24. “Damn life, damn love, damn literature! In other words, damn journalism! Live out of London, drop journalism — yet to quit one made impossible by loneliness, the other by finance. Make £1,000 a year, make pots of money out of a novel! Too soft for journalism, too rough for literature. I should be wretched abroad, bored in the country — what can one do?”
Kingsley Amis, despite earning £822,000 in the last five years of life, died with a relatively modest estate. What he earned, he spent: £315 on taxis, £432 at the Garrick Club, £1,038 on drink — and that just in one month in February 1993.
Amis had a bulldog agent. Others weren’t so lucky. Penelope Fitzgerald’s first novel The Golden Child (1977) was taken on by Duckworth for £200. Was this acceptable?, asked the managing director. “No,” wrote Fitzgerald, “but I haven’t the courage to say no.”
George Gissing, who had painted the hack trade in rough colours in New Grub Street (1891), used to ask of young writers talked up as the next big thing: “But has he starved?”
Better, many writers have concluded, to take on lucrative work for the lowbrow mags despised by literary London, than to starve in the TLS and LRB. Martin Amis and Ian McEwan picked up cheques for short stories in the adult magazines Penthouse and Club International.
Taylor’s admiration for the men and women who have scraped — or raked — a living by their pens springs from every page of this energetic, affectionate, galvanising book. It sends you hurrying to order all the novels, memoirs and collected letters you haven’t read and to re-read the ones you have. May editors commission a sequel, may Hollywood buy the film rights, and may he never flounder in garret despair.