Boyd Tonkin: 2009 will be a year to remember the hero of hacks
Friday 02 January 2009
Not yet two days old, the year already carries curses on its infant head.
Writers, publishers, agents and booksellers have done their share of premature damnation, with every party-wrecking pessimist keen to bring the freshest news of doom. Yet 2009 will bring at least one predictable season of rejoicing. Three centuries after his birth, we will have the chance to celebrate the first, grandest and unlikeliest literary celebrity of them all. If you imagine times are hard, take a few moments to ponder the odds stacked against the man who created modern literature.
A sickly child is born in a small Midlands city, his father an obscure bookseller who soon falls into poverty. Somehow, the boy survives, but with lifelong scarring from a skin disease. Ungainly and uncomely, he suffers so badly from nervous tics that they make him a social pariah. Modern specialists have diagnosed Tourette's Syndrome. On top of physical ailments, he will never escape savage bouts of depression that plague him for the rest of his days.
In spite of a disrupted schooling, his prodigious gifts, and a friend's financial help, take him to Oxford. The money gone, he has to leave the university – in shame and debt – after 13 months. The drop-out finds even the humblest schoolteaching jobs closed to him. When he opens a school, three pupils enrol. A lonely hack in London, he hangs out with a bohemian poet, the pair so poor they walk all night for want of cash for a room. To family hostility, this gauche nobody marries a woman 20 years his senior. His works – poems, plays, essays – earn little except the mockery of critics and the scorn of potential patrons in the aristocracy.
At length, a group of backers hire this lowliest of scribblers to undertake a mammoth and thankless editing job that will exhaust his energies for almost a decade. Worn out by toil, forever on the verge of ruin, this middle-aged failure who has endured half a lifetime of contempt still finds room in his household for a freed slave from Jamaica – who will become his heir – and a near-blind woman poet. Finally, the mad project reaches its long-delayed terminus. Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language appears in 1755.
The three decades of fame that followed saw "Dr Johnson" not only define the art and business of literature but embody them as well. As star and sage, as myth and mentor, he set the terms of trade. Johnson did more than anyone to establish the dignity of professional authorship in Britain. Against the patronage of toffs and dons, he acknowledged as final arbiter "the regard of the public" – even as he showed how back-scratching, fashion and hype could make or break authors: "the prejudice of faction, the strategems of intrigue or the servility of adulation". A hundred haughty sneers from tenured academics and landed aristos lie behind his saying that "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money".
Johnson's role as a hero for proud hacks everywhere gives an extra piquancy to the tricentenary events that will remember his birthday, in Lichfield in September 1709. For, beyond the shocks of a ferocious downturn, the bad news that blows in with 2009 has to do with the crisis of professional writing as Sam helped to create it. In books, as in other media, the pincer movement of new technology on one side and old frugality on the other will squeeze the economic space where non-celebrity writers strive to make a living. Some digital gurus treat the advent of a low-cost, minimal-payment, limited-rights model of publishing as a vision of heaven. Johnsonians may view it as a glimpse of Grub Street hell.
As the serious money in books rapidly dries up for all but a tiny elite, many more non-blockheads will weigh up the option of writing just for love – or not writing at all. Those fledgling talents who choose to persist through leaner times should revisit the first 50 years of Johnson's life, salute his awesome courage, and take heart.
P.S. The week after Christmas is scavenger heaven, with human hyenas licensed and encouraged to gorge on any leftovers we find. And the same goes for the media. Some excited chatter has followed the arrival of a "new" US diet cult, which apparently involves plenty of fat and booze to stimulate those sluggish hormones and make women feel better about themselves. No fad can ever fly without a celeb or three in tow, and it seems that Teri Hatcher, Sharon Stone and Sarah Jessica Parker (right) have all fallen for the wild salmon, strawberry omelette and and vodka-on-the-rocks regime of New York nutritionist Esther Blum in her book Secrets of Gorgeous. One of Blum's timeliest secrets concerns hangover cures. She recommends cabbage to cleanse the liver or else Japanese pickled plums, umeboshi, which detox like a dream – so she claims. What a heartening way to kick off a month (or year) of self-denial – except that, like many seasonal gifts, this one comes a trifle late. The UK edition of Blum's book (price £13.99) actually appeared in September 2007. Now that you know the secrets of gorgeous, spend that on a stiff vodkatini and a box of chocolate truffles.
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