It’s a lean time for writers, as arts funding shrinks on all sides, journalists are laid off in droves, broadcasting budgets are slashed, and book publishing remains in a state of seemingly unceasing upheaval.
It often seems as if the age of living by the pen may be brought to a close by an increasingly rapacious approach to human affairs, interested only in hard numbers and bottom lines. Australian writers Frank Moorhouse and Ben Eltham have recently proposed several schemes to give writers a living wage to support their work.
And so it’s timely to reflect on some of the strange, desperate and occasionally dangerous ways in which writers have historically lived, if not always by their pens, then at least on their wits. Here’s twelve ways in which classics of western literature were written.
Unlike other activities, advertising continues to pay very well (though many writers fear they may be required to sell their soul).
English crime writer Dorothy Sayers had a top floor office at Benson’s advertising, where she invented the Mustard Club, a fictional mustard-loving entity with half a million real life subscribers in the UK, and also devised “Just think what Toucan do” for Guinness.
Peter Carey devised roof-tiling company Monier’s well-known jingle, “Top Cat in Roof Tiles”. Salman Rushdie spent many happy years at Ogilvy & Mather where he came up with “Look into the Mirror tomorrow – you’ll like what you see” for the Daily Mirror. Don Delillo was also employed at Ogilvy & Mather’s New York office, but doesn’t talk about it much.
Even F. Scott Fitzgerald did time at Barron Collier’s. Not only did he give us The Great Gatsby, he also produced – for the Muscatine Steam laundry in Muscatine, Iowa – “We keep you clean in Muscatine”.
2) Postal clerks
The postal service has provided a safe haven for many a writer. Anthony Trollope wrote his novels for three hours every morning before going off to his day job at the post office, which he kept for 33 years. Charles Bukowski also worked for the postal service, and kept his job for ten years. (His first novel was called Post Office and its protagonist was a postal clerk.)
William Faulkner was also a postmaster in Mississippi, but rather less good at holding his job. His resignation letter famously read,
As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.
Faulkner went on to work as a night manager in a power plant where he penned As I Lay Dying in six or eight weeks, writing between the hours of midnight and 4 am.
3) Janitors and pest exterminators
Ken Kesey was a night cleaner in a mental hospital. He also volunteered to be an experimental guinea pig in a CIA-backed mind control study conducted under the auspices of a front organisation at the Menlo Park facility. This experience gave us One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Stephen King also did time as a janitor in a high school. William S. Burroughs worked as a pest exterminator in Chicago. Jack Kerouac’s resume includes stints as a cotton picker, a dishwasher, a night guard, and gas station attendant.
4) Music transcription
Desperate writers, it seems, will do just about anything. Rousseau, with his books banned, and patrons running scared, transcribed an estimated 9,000 pages of music at six sols per page between 1770 and his death in 1778.
Jack London was famously an oyster poacher, though he preferred to call himself an “oyster pirate”. There’s also an apocryphal tale that Shakespeare was forced to flee Stratford when he was nabbed for poaching deer on the nearby Lucy estate, leading to a life-long feud with the local lord.
There’s no doubt that Shakespeare was adept at turning a guinea where he could. The Earl of Rutland paid no less than four pounds and eight shillings to Shakespeare and his lead actor Richard Burbage (who also moonlighted as a painter) to create a shield and write a motto so that Rutland could appear well dressed at a tournament.
Shakespeare sent his money home to his very clever wife in Stratford, who slowly bought up lots of farmland and cornered much of the local grain trade.
Many writers teach, but few do it for a career. David Lodge was Professor of English, back in the day when academics didn’t worry too much about things like Excellence in Research evaluation, or applying for research council grants. JRR Tolkien was Professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford, producing definitive editions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Beowulf as well as his novels.
Robert Frost taught at Amherst and Vladimir Nabokov was Professor of Russian Literature at Cornell. But not everybody agreed this was a good idea. When Nabokov was up for a chair in literature at Harvard, the distinguished linguist Roman Jakobson protested, “What’s next? Shall we appoint elephants to teach zoology?”
7) Butterfly curator
Nabokov’s first job on arrival in the United States was as the curator of Lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard. He stayed there for six years.
It’s surprising how many writers have ended up on the murky side of politics. John Buchan, perhaps most famously, earned 1,000 pounds a year as the Director of the Ministry of Information, closely aligned to the War Propaganda Bureau where H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, J.B. Priestly, and Ford Maddox Ford penned paid and unpaid articles, pamphlets and leaflets including Doyle’s To Arms! (1914) and Ford’s When Blood is Their Argument (1915). Arnold Bennett was head of British propaganda in France. Wells became Head of Enemy Propaganda until a strange series of events led to his spectacular resignation.
George Orwell, who spent much of his life scraping money from wherever he could, was employed in the service of the Imperial Police in Burma, an institution he despised. On returning to London, he worked as a paid propagandist at the BBC, broadcasting to India. It was the psychic pain of the arch enemy of mindless patriotism serving as a wartime propagandist that gave us 1984.
9) Doctors, lawyers and clergymen
Some writers have known from the start that there are better ways to make a living. Henry Fielding was a Magistrate, but by “refusing to take a shilling from a man who would undoubtedly not have had another one left” halved his portion of what he called “the dirtiest money on earth”.
Jonathan Swift was the vicar of Laracor – his congregation of just 15 leaving him plenty of time to write, which he did, for the most part, in the glittering clubs of London.
Anton Chekov, Somerset Maugham and Williams Carlos Williams were doctors. So too was Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle set up a not very successful medical practice in Portsmouth and famously penned A Study in Scarlet during the interminable wait times between patients. He later set up an ophthalmologist in Upper Wimpole St, London, but claims that he never secured so much as a single patient.
10) Cinema impressario
James Joyce scraped a living by teaching English in Trieste, while dreaming up wild moneymaking schemes. With the help of Italian friends he opened the Cinematograph Volta in Dublin, on Mary St, but couldn’t stick to it for more than seven months. He then planned to import Irish tweed to Trieste.
Ulysses would never have been written without the support of feminist publisher Harriet Shaw Weaver, who, in February 1917, shortly after she published Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in book form, gave Joyce an income of £200 a year to support his work. Later Weaver created a trust fund, the interest from which gave Joyce an income for life.
11) Airline ticketing clerk
Harper Lee worked as a reservation clerk for Eastern Air Lines and BOAC for more than eight years. This only changed in in 1956, when the Broadway composer Michael Brown and his wife Joy gave Lee a Christmas gift with a card that said, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please.” Lee produced the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird within 12 months.
It’s hard to believe, but writers made nothing from their books until the invention of copyright in the 18th century. Instead, they relied on wealthy patrons to make a living.
This uneasy relationship led a frustrated Samuel Johnson to insert in 1755 a double-edged definition in his Dictionary. After the words, “Patron: One who countenances, supports and protects,” he added, “Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence and is paid with flattery.”
Shakespeare is said to have received an astonishing £1,000 for his flowery dedications to the Earl of Southampton (though it was more probably a still wildly generous £100). Hence he wrote, “The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end; whereof this pamphlet, without beginning, is but a superfluous moiety.”
But choosing a patron could be dangerous. The Earl of Southampton was later imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth I for his role in the Earl of Essex’s 1601 rebellion against the queen. Southampton had organised a special performance of Richard II. While there is no evidence Shakespeare was directly punished, he had good reason to be worried, with other writers tortured and even murdered in Elizabethan England.
Living by the pen
Of course, the preferred method of earning an income for writers has inevitably been journalism. Once patronage was replaced by the rise of the commercial press, writers were able to turn to the business of writing about real people. Samuel Richardson was a printer. Samuel Taylor Coleridge edited The Watchman and The Friend. Charles Dickens was a parliamentary reporter and then editor and publisher of Household Words.
Indeed, writing for periodicals was what allowed many women in the 19th century to secure an independent income. Jane Austen calculated that the life-long return on her novels was a mere 84 pounds and 13 shillings (works that made millions in the centuries that followed).
But Harriet Beecher Stowe was able to become the sole income earner for her family, penning not just Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but periodicals, gift books, textbooks and popular annuals. Margaret Fuller became the first female editor of the New York Tribune, and their first female foreign correspondent covering the Italian revolutions.
Today, the problem is that not only writers but also perhaps journalists could use an arts council grant.