The Awl points out this interview with Tina Brown. At about 19:40, Brown asks: “Are we building this new sort of subculture frankly of impoverished, living in garret writers? Because the fact is writers can hardly make a living right now because they don’t get paid.” Leon Wieseltier made a similar observation last month when he described writers as “the new proles“.
I don’t write for a living, and I have mostly sympathy (and perhaps also a little envy) for those who do. But it’s worth recalling that the expectation that journalists, critics, and editors could expect a middle-class income and lifestyle has developed only quite recently.
Before about World War II, newspaper writing was little respected and worse paid, more trade than profession. National magazines offered better fees and more respect. But relatively few people actually supported themselves writing for them. And the scribbler’s existence before the 20th Century–and outside the United States–was notoriously poor and dissolute. There are many memorable portraits of life on both the literal and the figurative Grub Street. The most compelling is Balzac’s Illusions perdues.
But the pre- and proto-capitalist economies of the 17th, 18th, and and early 19th centuries offered a solution that we’ve since forgetten: patronage. Rather than trying to sell their wares on the open market, the men of letters of Paris and London tried to sell themselves to wealthy and influential patrons. Work as a hired polemicist, secretary, or a private tutor, wasn’t romantic. But it did provide a stable income not only to honest hacks, but also some very eminent minds. What would Burke have been without Rockingham? Hobbes without the Cavendishes?
It’s hard to imagine any modern magnate personally supporting a stable of bloggers. But why? It would be cheaper, and probably more amusing, than endowing a building at some pompous university. For one thing, buildings can’t tell you how wise you were to pay for them. For another, they can’t tell your enemies how stupid they are. As it happens, I’m looking for a job myself at the moment. Let the bidding begin!