Writers and their Professions v4

The compulsion to write is a mysterious one. Jorge Luis Borges claimed that he was prouder of what he had read in his life, than of what he had written. 1 That, of course,  was easy for him—and other sophisticated writers like Benjamin 2. Even Johnson’s pecuniary imperative rings as hollow affectation, as Boswell, part-scandalised, part-condescending his subject, rightly notes. There are easier, more pleasurable and less uncertain ways to earn a living. 3 If you can read and write—and many of our writers can—you are fit for most jobs in our service economy.

The other ostensible motivation—“Because it’s the only thing I can do; because I am otherwise unemployable”—is also a gross affectation. 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. 

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 dreadful 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 by giving them the opportunity to withdraw.

Even though publishers fashionably stack their writers’ biographical blurb with spoof jobs—chicken rouster in Malaysia 4—as if to reassure the reader about the fatal inevitability 5

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 perhaps the welfare state, he enjoyed Florentine patronage.

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 ophtalmology are praised; and it is hinted that such service to his family and his community prevented him from contributing further to the literary world.

Just as children play with Bob the Builder, presumably in the same spirit that middle class children play with Bob the Builder. That the present volume was typed by hands unsullied by (manual) labour, just fashionably distressed, like designer jeans.


  1. 1Cite. Cf. On humility.
  2. 2Cite.] to say. In order to write, one needs a conviction of inevitability. That what one writes, needs to be written—let alone read [by others
  3. 3Not 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
  4. 4get some actual ones, Adam Thirlwell, for instance, a zoo caretaker for ten years
  5. 5taut.] of the writer’s vocation because surely no one was put on this earth to roust chickens in Malaysia. (These jobs never reflect the social background of the writer. They are 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 (In fact, it is in the world of vanity publishing that the writer’s useful day job is emphasised, as if to justify the author’s having no time to enter the world of legitimate publishing.)[What is this “rousting”?