“Just like the riverside with its snuffle-hunters, or Spitalfields and its weavers, this polite refuge of the literate middling sort was hopelessly overstocked. It could never give work to all who flocked there pen in hand. This, rather than the reluctance of rich patrons to support genius, as many writers lamented at the time, was the primary cause of discontent in the writing trade. The travails of the hackney writer (low earnings, exhausting hours, irritating working conditions) never ceased to rouse the pity of…the hackney writer…By birth, by education, by understanding, it seemed that those who made their livelihood the business of words were due more regard from a society that had bred them to better things.”
Sound familiar? There’s nothing new about a sense of aggrieved entitlement among writers. The principal difference I see between eighteenth-century England and our time and place is one of talent. They had Dryden, Swift, Pope, Johnson, Boswell, Burke, Fielding and Sterne, among others. We have – who? Anis Shivani is ready with nominations. His list of much-honored, unreadable writers is a small but representative core sample. He writes:
“If we don’t understand bad writing, we can’t understand good writing. Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite. Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself.”
Amen. Johnson, who refers in his Adventurer essay to “this epidemical conspiracy for the destruction of paper,” would surely harrumph his approval.