Writers and their Professions v26

The compulsion to write is a mysterious one. After all, there’s something suspect, something unattractive and childish about wanting to impose your words on others, lashing your every passing sensation to the alphabet. The invitation to read one’s particular arrangement of words, therefore, always comes circumscribed, with excessively humble titles and self-lacerating prefaces. In more grandiose times, unctuously false modest writers would claim that the words are not theirs anyway, that they have been dictated by the muses.

Perhaps there is a secular force, an authorial manifest destiny, that requires no apology, a bold statement that what one writes, simply had to be written,  in some world-historical sense. 1 Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of faux-humble justifications that writers employ to diminish this arrogance. Some try to make it sound like their writing was a mere by-product of their reading, a form of note-taking that got out of hand. 2 Jorge Luis Borges claimed that he was prouder of what he had read in his life, than of what he had written. 3

There are, of course, those who cheerfully tap away at their keyboard, who speak of “enjoying writing” or speak of it as a form of therapy. But the days of de Maistre and Chamfort are over, and it has been at least a century and a half since anyone has been comfortable simply to say that writing was the by-product of their leisure. Indeed, in those features in the Sunday supplements,  writers want to convince us that what they do is just like real work, that they turn up for work punctually every morning. That writing is hard and not at all a pastime. And that, just like any other worker, if they could afford to not work, they would. 4 

The first, and most plausible apology for writing in our Fordist age,  then, is for writers to claim that they write for the same reason that everyone else does their job—to earn a living. But even Samuel Johnson could not pull this off. When he uttered his famous defence of a pecuniary motivation for writing—“No one but a blockhead, ever wrote, except for money”—Boswell found it unconvincing. Although Johnson, and for that matter, Boswell, earned a good living out of his pen. 5 The number of writers who actually earn a living from their writing is miniscule.

The other ostensible motivation—“Because it’s the only thing I can do; because I am otherwise unemployable”—is also a gross affectation. There are easier, more pleasurable and less uncertain ways to earn a living. 6 If you can read and write—and many of our writers can—you can do most jobs in our service economy. If Goethe could work as a diplomat, Shakespeare as an actor, Dante as a schemer, Chekhov as a doctor, Eliot as a banker, Kafka as an insurance clerk, etc, then you can work as a project manager.

The advice, “Don’t write if you can do anything else” is a rewording of the same sentiment. You’re of course still expected to be there by the end of the article, or talk, or workshop. Still among those burdened by fate with this awful mission. This is merely the sergeant major calling his company’s bluff just before a foolishly heroic mission. Transforming his men from conscripts to volunteers, from chumps to heroes, by giving them the opportunity to withdraw.

To this end, publishers fashionably stack their writers’ biographical blurb with spoof jobs—chicken rouster in Malaysia, zoo caretaker 7—as if to reassure the reader about the preordained nature of the writer’s vocation—because surely no one was put on this earth to roust chickens in Malaysia. (What is this “rousting”?) These jobs never reflect the social background of the writer. They are indirect Veblen jobs, the jobs of people so socially secure that they feel immune to what their job contributes to their identity. They are, in their own way, “free to wait tables and shine shoes”. That this writer did not simply take up the pen one day, but that there was a Marxian-Hegelian inevitability to their literary career.

Of course there are occasions when a writer comes to us after a lifetime of service in another profession. But it is usually in the annals of Vanity Publishing that the author’s great contribution to local ophthalmology are praised; and it is hinted that such service to his family and his community prevented him from contributing further to the literary world, and perhaps, from entering the world of “legitimate” publishing.

The problem with the spoof jobs is that they are only full of pathos if the worker had no choice. 8 Although, inherent to this attitude is the unattractive assumption that, given the choice, people would always choose what we choose. 9 Pirate Jenny was not scrubbing floors while Farrar & Giroux considered her manuscript. But it is precisely to avoid becoming identified with an undesired job, to remain outside of its symbolic, that they choose to take these jobs. They are like the children of the bourgeoisie who play with Bob the Builder, while the odds of them entering ťhe construction industry are miniscule. 10 That the present volume was typed by hands unsullied by (manual) labour, just fashionably distressed, like designer jeans.

This is all to impress upon us the happy circumstance of the writer’s birth. That by a happy coincidence, thanks to a successful attorney father—or for a few blessed decades, the welfare state or the GI Bill—he enjoyed Florentine patronage; just as classical biographies first extolled the subject’s ancestors.


  1. 1Nietzsche in Ecce Homo?
  2. 2For some, it’s a by-product of owning a laptop.
  3. 3Cite. Cf. On Humility. Then again, Borges’s “humility” was as prodigiously deft as his penmanship.
  4. 4Contemporary mores somewhat muddy the waters here, since everyone is obligated to enjoy, and love, their job.
  5. 5How many writers can afford a house on Fleet Street?
  6. 6Not to mention the very small number of writers that have ever been able to earn a living exclusively from writing—this number is even smaller now
  7. 7Adam Thirlwell
  8. 8The rich heir who chooses humble employment is pathetic. The artist humiliated by an oppressive regime is pathetic. Someone who relishes its perversity is not.
  9. 9Cf. #MyFirstSevenJobs
  10. 10Do children  in working-class households play with Sophie the Assistant Head of Digital Change Management toys?