Historical Perspective

by | Oct 30, 2011 | Writers

In response to my 11/27 post, a concerned reader writes:

 “And yet a little historical perspective is in order. Making a living as a writer of fiction was extremely rare up until the 19th century. Then a combination of factors resulted in a huge market for reading material. This whole fiction thing is just a byproduct of the industrial revolution. But it was never a market for novels, per se. It was a market for entertainment. And as more easily digestible forms of entertainment came along, the market went with them. The same thing happened to piano manufacturers and instrumental musicians. It could be worse. How many people have ever made a living from being published poets?”

The answer is: none. Poets only survive because they find a patron of some kind. They are given a nice little sinecure by a university, or eke out a feast and famine existence on government grants. Walt Whitman, for example, was bounced into and out of various government clerkships for years.

Examples from the world of prose: E. M. Forster was only able to write because he was independently well-off. Virginia Woolf was only able to found the Hogarth Press (and thus self-publish her own work less overtly than most of us have to) because she was left a bequest by an aunt she barely knew. James Joyce, one of the greatest prose stylists of all time, was only able to drink his two bottles of wine a night in fine restaurants because he was supported by a rich American woman who’d been told he was a starving genius. Poor Joyce. In gratitude he sent her one of the first copies of Ulysses. Never heard back. Inquiries revealed she’d received it and promptly stuck it on a shelf. She’d been told it was a naughty book.

A little more historical perspective. The classic plays of ancient Greece were written by members of the business and privileged classes. Likewise most of the literature, poetry, and history of Rome. The authors who are exceptions to this rule were, as always, those lucky enough and politically savvy enough to find patronage. Normally, writing was a leisure activity. You wrote something, then invited your friends to come listen to you (or a well-voiced slave) declaim the thing. Writing did not bring you income so much as prestige.

Then again, lawyering in Roman times worked the same way. Until standards dropped, the idea was that you took up a case for free. You got to make speeches, and increase the number of people who owed you favors (especially if you won the case), both of which ultimately helped you along in what really mattered, your political career. But charging a fee for taking a case smacked of prostitution. The lawyers, obviously, have gotten over this prejudice.


This issue is, oddly enough or not oddly at all, taken up in What is the Meaning of All This?, a long title that I’ll sometimes refer to by its acronym WITMOAT. If you download the free sample from Amazon, you’ll be cut off (not my choice here – Amazon’s samples are 10% of the verbiage and not a line more) after the second line of a three-line phrase. The phrase is interior monologue in the mind of the semi-mythological Welsh poet Taliesin, he of the shining brow. A saying from the bardic tradition of the Celts:

It is death to kill a poet

To love a poet

To be a poet

One of the many, many reasons it is death to be a poet (or a prose writer) is that if you follow the call, you are doomed to almost certain starvation. Very tragic but makes for dramatic story-lines, when Hollywood makes a ‘based on a true story’ film about your life. That, of course, only happens in the case of artists lucky enough (Van Gogh is a good example) to be discovered after they’re already dead. The vast majority of us die in obscurity and stay there. As for my concerned reader, I do appreciate the concern. I also hope he does not think he’s telling me the news. The thing about poets (and prose writers and visual artists and instrumental musicians) is that we’ve been burdened with this terrible gift. We may or may not be worthy of it, but if we reject it we are doomed to a life of despair. As opposed to accepting it and living a life of despair. Either way a poet plays it, he’s almost certainly chingado.