James Ralph was an 18th-century content creator, scratching out a living in England’s New Economy. In an age of political, social and technological upheaval, life could be precarious for those who kept the printing presses stoked with words.
Writing in 1758, Ralph said “there is no Difference between the Writer in his Garret, and the Slave in the Mines; but that the former has his Situation in the Air, and the latter in the Bowels of the Earth: Both have their Tasks assigned them alike: Both must drudge and starve; and neither can hope for Deliverance.”
The quote comes from The Age of Authors: An Anthology of Eighteenth-Century Print Culture, a remarkable collection of writing about writing and the plight of writers. Editor Paul Keen writes that Ralph was “often dismissed as a Grub Street hack writer,” but managed to produce some important work, including the essay quoted above.
The essay, The Case of Authors By Profession or Trade, Stated, marks the decline of the era when writers relied on patrons. The new commercial model of publishing was generating profits that were being denied to those slaves in the garrets, Ralph argued.
In the new world of letters, anyone, it seemed, could be an author – even women. (Anyone, that is, who belonged to the educated classes. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the literacy rate in Great Britain rose above 60 per cent.)
Eighteenth-century readers suffered from their own version of information overload. Writing in the guise of a Chinese philosopher explaining England to friends at home, Oliver Goldsmith calculated that British presses churned out 8,395 new books a year, or 23 books a day.
“If then we suppose the learned of England to read but an eighth part of the works which daily come from the press (and sure none can pretend to learning upon less-easy terms,) at this rate every scholar will read a thousand books in one year.… And yet I know not how it happens, but the English are not in reality so learned as would seem from this calculation. We meet but few who know all arts and sciences to perfection; whether it is that the generality are incapable of such extensive knowledge, or that the authors of those books are not adequate instructors.”
In England, Goldsmith’s philosopher reports, “every man may be an author that can write; for they have by law a liberty not only of saying what they please, but of being also as dull as they please.”
While many in the 18th century saw their era as the Age of Authors, they did not mean the term as a compliment to the times.
“The present age, if we consider chiefly the state of our own country, may be stiled with great propriety THE AGE OF AUTHORS; for, perhaps, there never was a time, in which men of all degrees of ability, of every kind of education, of every profession and employment, were posting with ardour so general to the press,” Samuel Johnson wrote in 1753.
“Almost every man is an author,” he complained. Women were getting into the act, too, “Amazons of the pen, who with the spirit of their predecessors have set masculine tyranny at defiance, asserted their claim to the regions of sciences, and seem resolved to contest the usurpations of virility.”
All this writing could be expected to produce some great works, wrote Vicesimus Knox in Essays, Moral and Literary. “It has however been observed, that the learning of the present age is not deep though diffusive, and that its productions are not excellent though numerous.”
Writing was being done in haste and to suit the “depraved taste of readers,” Knox complained. And writers were writing for money. Authorship “is become a lucrative employment, and is practiced rather by those who feel the inconvenience of hunger, than by those who are stimulated with the hope of immortality.”
“Even supposing an Author to support himself by the profit arising from his works, there is nothing more dishonest, scandalous, or mean in it, than an officer in the army (the politest of all professions) living on his commission.… An Author is no more to be condemned as an hackney scribbler, though he writes at the rate of so much per sheet, than a Colonel should be despised as a mercenary and a bravo, for exposing himself to be slashed, stuck, and shot at for so much per day,” Mr. Town argued.
As Catharine Macaulay wrote in 1774, “literary merit will not purchase a shoulder of mutton, or prevail with sordid butchers and bakers to abate one farthing in the pound of the exorbitant price which meat and bread at this time bear; the brewer, the linen draper, the hosier, &c. &c. will all think their ignorance in letters an excuse for extorting, for the mere necessities of life, sums which the wretched author has not wherewithal to pay.”
Today, in the Age of Algorithms, writers again must ask to be paid for their work. And a thousand followers on Twitter still won’t purchase a shoulder of mutton.