Wednesday, May 22, 2013

And worth every penny, too: The mixed pleasure of being an unpaid writer

As a newcomer to the blogosphere, I'm grateful for the warm welcome I got on May 20 from Hope Baugh, a veteran in that arena (Indy Theatre Habit). One sentence in particular gave me a fresh perspective that will be useful as I continue: "Even if he doesn't have to worry about earning a living, Jay may get tired of writing for free once the rush of writing whatever he wants to write wears off."

That's certainly a realistic prospect, especially daunting when set against a personal history of nearly 42 years of writing for pay. Deep in my memory lies the thundering judgment of the inimitable Samuel Johnson (1709-1784): "No man except a blockhead ever wrote except for money."

The literary-minded do not brush off lightly the stamp of authority that clings to just about everything Dr. Johnson said, even when he seems to have been wrong (viz., his famous dismissal of female preachers). But a context needs to be put on this particular remark that may be helpful to us self-directed bloggers who make our "content" available without cost to all: Johnson struggled for many years to make a living in London, and was well-acquainted with the desperate need to make writing pay.

One of the great critic-lexicographer's most distinguished biographers, Walter Jackson Bate, described as nearly unique among literary critics Johnson's "direct knowledge of  what we might call the underworld of publishing and writing — of the large number of people, often living in extreme poverty, who did writing and publishing work in order simply to stay alive in the most rudimentary way."

London's Grub Street provided the delicious name for this scene — an actual place where writers trying to position themselves between patronage and entrepreneurial status often lived in unheated garrets. So I choose to interpret Johnson's remark as a warning that writers shouldn't allow themselves to be taken advantage of by exercising their skills freely and assigning the results no market value. Don't set yourselves up for starvation, his advice could be put.

I'm comfortable with the quite different situation of today's blogosphere, where being gullible is less of a danger, where the more pertinent charge that can be laid against unpaid bloggers is that they're doing it all out of vanity. That imputation hurts a bit, because I've decided to continue commenting on the breadth of areas assigned to me at the Star. Few people can claim to be equally conversant with theater, dance jazz and classical music. I may also let fly with a piece on literature or film, too.  Oh, the nerve!

I can only offer in defense my  lifelong dilettantism. The word "dilettante" is in bad repute, sort of parallel to "amateur." Both words are rooted directly in the love of some activity, usually artistic. Directors of amateur groups have learned to substitute the word "volunteer," which sounds nobler, more self-sacrificing.  What's love got to do with that? Best not to say, if you have to use the word "amateur."

No substitute has come along to replace the implications of irresponsible dabbling, shallow engagement and knowledge that are wrapped up in the word "dilettante." But I choose to adhere to its original Italian roots in "delight," and years ago was pleased to see (in the booklet with an LP set)  a reproduction of the dedication page  of the 1712 edition of Antonio Vivaldi's "L'Estro Armonico" concertos, boldly headlined: "Alli Dilettanti di Musica" (to the lovers of music).

Ah, my people! I thought. It's not my fault that the word has declined in status over three centuries. It's happened to many other words as well: A knave was once merely a male servant, "silly" originally meant blessed.

So it's time that I here and now embrace being a dilettante. And dilettantism will inevitably be an aspect of this blog, whether favorably regarded or otherwise. If that makes me a silly knave, that's just something I'll have to add to the list of humbling labels attached to me.

It will be harder to live with  "blockhead," though, whatever the 18th century's foremost content provider may have thought.


  1. Happy to be a vicarious participant in your dilettantism

  2. Years ago I heard an installment of "Adventures in Good Music" in which Karl Haas quite casually said "For those of you who know painting..." -- what a transformative idea, that a mere layman could "know" a whole field of endeavor. That short phrase invited me to aspire to be a person who tries to "know" multiple fields. Amateur, dilettante...synonyms for "well-rounded person," perhaps?