Thursday, May 8, 2014

Literature is not a Profession

In a review of The Formation of the Victorian Literary Profession, by Richard Salmon, Rosemary Ashton writes in The Times Literary Supplement, "Literature was once the pursuit of rich amateurs, writers with aristocratic patrons, and scurrilous penny-a-liners scraping a living in 'Grub Street'. How did that situation change, as experts generally agree it did, in the early-to-mid nineteenth century?" Thomas Carlyle hoped to provide financial assistance to struggling writers comparable to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Samuel Johnson and Robert Burns, and he suggested an "Organization of the Literary Guild" similar to medieval craft guilds. Taking Carlyle to heart, Charles Dickens formed one with Bulwer Lytton in 1851. Their "Guild of Literature and Art" built retirement homes for literary people in 1865, but the homes were not well-received, and the Guild disbanded in 1897.

To a certain extent, the ambiguity surrounding the literary profession hasn't changed much since Carlyle's lectures of 1840. Many of today's journalists are reminiscent of Grub Street writers, paid by the article. The authors of bestsellers operate more like independent businesses than members of a guild. What is new is literature as an academic subject, along with writing programs and writers' workshops. As far as I am able to tell, these recent developments have done little to improve the quality of writing or the lot of good writers.

In the nineteenth century, not many people wrote for a living or wanted to. That would have made sifting through budding writers far easier than it is today.  Now, every year millions of students take courses in literature and creative writing, and regardless of their talent many of them come to define themselves as writers, if only because the creation of literature is seen as high-status work. Increasingly, universities have become degree mills, not unlike manufacturing plants, but selling diplomas instead of cars. It is difficult to imagine Thomas Carlyle or Charles Dickens condoning the writing produced by the students in M.F.A. programs and writers' workshops. What they referred to as literature has largely been co-opted by universities and publishers.

In my view, though there is usually good reason to transform practical vocations such as medicine, law and engineering into professions, because standardization and competency levels improve them, the same cannot be said of the arts. Thus, in the case of writing, the public is force-fed whatever the writing programs and literary publishers put forward, even when there is a blatant conflict of interest. The income of writing programs and publishers depends on the success of their authors. This partially explains why literary fiction has become a niche product that is of little appeal to most readers.

Although in theory I would want to support a talented writer like Rousseau, I doubt that he could have written as well as he did if he had arrived at being a writer by means of a comfortable education followed by formal university certification of his writing skills. In a capitalist economy no less than in a communist economy, the arts, with few exceptions, don't lend themselves to professionalization.


  1. Good post. I like you better on these topics than on some others (government by algorithm, for example, or other developments neither of us will be around to see).

    People who do work of the kind I sometimes do often like to call themselves independent scholars. I prefer an older term: hobbyist.


  2. Glad you liked it. I'm currently on a science kick but probably will always be just as interested in literary stuff. Literary people engage in fuzzy thinking that gets on my nerves after a while, and scientific people engage in humorless empiricism that also gets on my nerves. Few are good at both.

    I think writing programs emphasize the element of craft, which will only take you so far. The most interesting elements of the arts don't fit within the definition of a trade.

    I'm off to Quebec for a couple of days.


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