I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
As with many endeavours that attract those seeking fame and fortune—acting, professional sports, music, etc.—there is a tiny number that reaches the pinnacle of success while there is a vast underclass of people scratching out a living on the fringes.
Samuel Johnson Described Grub Street
Even the great English writer Samuel Johnson knew from first-hand experience how difficult the life of an author can be.
Writing on Canada's McMaster University Library website, Carl Spadoni points out that “For most of his career, Johnson endured a life of poverty and literary drudgery, common to many aspiring authors and hacks of the eighteenth century who tried to make a living by their pen.”
The dream of a career in writing drew Johnson to London in 1737. As with countless beginners since, he eked out a meagre existence through journalism, literary criticism, poetry, and any form of writing that commanded a fee, no matter how small.
In 1755, he published his most famous work, The Dictionary of the English Language. In it, he described Grub Street as “originally the name of a street . . . much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems, whence any mean production is called Grub Street.”
Employment for the Grub Street Hacks
Living in grim dwellings, the Grub Street writers churned out copy for scores of periodicals, most of which, like their contributors, were on the brink of financial collapse. One of the more successful Grub Street journals was The Gentleman’s Magazine, which kept going until the 1920s.
To say it was a general interest publication does a disservice to the word “general.” Once a month, The Gentleman’s Magazine published an eclectic collection of material, as genealogist and writer Alan Mann puts it, from “interesting court proceedings, descriptions of battles in foreign lands, lists of new books . . . obituaries, extracts of unusual wills . . . current foreign events, and notices of births, marriages, deaths, promotions.”
The pages of The Gentleman’s Magazine contained everything from commodity prices to Latin poetry, as well as Samuel Johnson’s observations on parliamentary proceedings.
Multitude of Grub Street Publications
The presses of the 18th century were churning out a bewildering array of journals, all of them competing for the same small segment of the population that could read.
There were literary journals such Tatler and The Spectator. Politics was the niche that the Old Wig, The Royal Magazine, and others sought to fill. The ladies were catered to by such august sheets as The Lady’s Poetical Magazine and the Female Spectator.
The unwashed herds were not left out as lurid descriptions of crimes and the subsequent executions of their perpetrators were broadcast by journals such as The Newgate Calendar.
Enterprising writers would peddle accounts, usually embellished, of murder and depravity around the pubs and coffee houses of the capital. There was usually somebody in the assembled company who could read out the sensational goings on.
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Poor Financial Rewards for Writing
Writing in The Guardian, D.J. Taylor notes that neighbourhoods change and that the once shabby often becomes gentrified: “Even in the 1840s, apparently, Grub Street was losing its bohemian air. By the end of the 19th century, it was almost respectable.”
That may be so, but would-be writers were still drawn to capital cities and forced, by lack of funds, to live in the seedier parts. Breaking in to the literary world continued to be difficult and left those who tried short of money.
Taylor writes that “By the 1930s, The Spectator allowed its book reviewers £5 a commission, but this was the upper end of the market. When the left-wing weekly Tribune began to pay its reviewers in the 1940s, at the instigation of its new literary editor, George Orwell, the going rate was £1.”
Lest we shed tears of compassion for the hard-done-by scribes, let’s pause for a moment and listen to the words of George Sala. He spent his formative writing years among the denizens of Grub Street and confessed “ . . . most of us were about the idlest young dogs that squandered away their time on the pavements of Paris or London. We would not work. I declare in all candour that . . . the average number of hours per week which I devoted to literary production did not exceed four.”
The Grub Street Formula Still in Place
For every Elizabeth Gilbert, Margaret Attwood, or Mario Vargas Llosa there are thousands of lesser lights who will never see their work in print.
Just as the Grub Street hacks had to peddle their work for a pittance in centuries past, aspiring writers today have to accept tiny fees or no fees at all to get published.
The arrival of the internet has made it possible for those with literary hopes to reach an audience at a very low cost. But, as with the first Grub Street scribblers, the economic model does not provide a living income. Some other form of paid work is nearly always needed for those who like to eat.
- Today, Grub Street Publishing is a small, niche company in the United Kingdom that publishes an improbable combination of cook books and military aviation.
- Grub Street writers were among the first to rely on readers for an income. Earlier men of letters sought out the patronage of the aristocracy for financial support or were independently wealthy.
- During England’s Civil War (1642-51) numerous illicit printers moved their equipment from one hovel to another in and around Grub Street. They were hired by both sides in the conflict to fight a propaganda war by printing what were known as newsbooks. These were the ancestors of today’s newspapers.
- “The Street of no Shame.” D.J. Taylor, The Guardian, December 1, 2001.
- “Grub Street - Journals and Newspapers in the 18th Century.” Carl Spadoni, McMaster University, undated.
- “Grub Street: Bohemian Literary History.” Mount Holyoke College, undated.
- “Revisiting Grub Street, the Back Alley of English Literature, Home to Hack Writers and Amateur Poets.” Philip Marchand, The National Post, April 26, 2016.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Jo Miller from Tennessee on October 11, 2017:
So little has changed as many writers still struggle and write for pennies.