Writers and their Professions v9

The compulsion to write is a mysterious one. There is something unattractive, something childish and a bit disgusting about it. In order to write, one needs a conviction of inevitability. That what one writes, needs to be written—let alone read by others. Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of humble justifications that writers employ. Some try to make it sound like their writing was a mere by product of their reading. Jorge Luis Borges claimed that he was prouder of what he had read in his life, than of what he had written. 1

Thus writers try to say how disgusting it is. (Not the ones that say how wonderful, or speak of it as therapy.) But the worldweary ones.

When Johnson uttered his famous defence of a pecuniary motivation for writing—“No one butt a blockhead, ever wrote, except for money”—even Boswell found it unconvincing.

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. 2 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. 

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.

To this end, publishers fashionably stack their writers’ biographical blurb with spoof jobs—chicken rouster in Malaysia, zoo caretaker 3—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. 4

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.

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; just as classical biographies first extolled the subject’s ancestors.


  1. 1Cite. Cf. On humility.
  2. 2Not 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
  3. 3Adam Thirlwell
  4. 4Of 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, and perhaps, from entering the world of legitimate publishing.