I’ve just finished watching a series of television programmes called ‘How to be a Bohemian with Victoria Coren’. It’s an appealing title, I think it may be nice to live a Bohemian lifestyle with a poker-playing host of impossible quiz shows - but unfortunately, it only meant she was presenting it.
The series started with the Paris set of artists first called Bohemian. Vic Gatrell (author of one my favourites, City of Laughter) recently wrote a book about Covent Garden in the mid eighteenth century called The First Bohemians. In this book, he skims around Grub Street and argues them as being the first wave of the Bohemian torch.
But there is one major difference, and that is embodied in the approaching Samuel Johnson quote. Whilst the Parisian Bohemians believed in ‘art for art’s sake’, the Grub Street Hacks believed;
‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money’.
The writer and artist’s first duty was not to art or truth, but to their belly.
It could be argued that Johnson was something of a Bohemian; he was shabby, opinionated, kept a busy and disorganised household of waifs and strays, and liked to épater le bourgeois. This quote comes from Boswell’s life, in which he is trying to shock some cultured literati.
At the time, it was considered best if writers were gentlemen of substance. This is probably a little of snobbery but there was a pretty good line of reason behind it also. It was thought that a writer who needed to write for their belly would write anything they thought they could sell or use to wheedle their way into a rich political faction. Their morals were for sale with their words. A gentleman, who could live without writing, would be a disinterested party. Only a gentleman could write for truth.
Johnson’s point was that a professional class of writer would write better, and that money was as good an incentive as any. It’s a delightfully practical, unbohemian way of looking at it, and far more appealing to me.
That said, here I am, writing this blog for no reason other than it popped it my head. I am also working on novels which may never be published. If Johnson is right, I am a blockhead.
As much as I kind-of identify with the Grub Street Hacks, I am not one of them. The majority were unconcerned with the quality of their work compared to sales, it was sales that enabled them to soldier on to the next day. Though there were residents of Grub Street that did great works; Johnson, Goldsmith and Kit Smart being may favourite triumvirate, most of them never did write anything lasting. Grubstreet is itself a word in Johnson’s dictionary implying some ephemeral or small work.
My Dad often asks me why I don’t ‘sell out’ and write what is trendy. I try to explain that it’s hard enough to write a book (and he should know, he has done) when it is something that really pulls you, let alone a vain attempt to jump on a bandwagon. I also try and explain that most of the people that really benefit from popularity were those who wrote what felt good to them and a bandwagon was created around it.
So I suppose I may well be closer to ‘art for art’s sake’ when it comes to my writing but it makes me uncomfortable. The phrase seems so shallow and selfish. ‘Art for art’s sake’ seems the surest way to create boring, self-swallowing art. I don’t even believe the novel is an art, it’s a craft, albeit one which can be done artfully.
I suppose I see myself as a weird combination of an actor and a carpenter. I’m keep whittling away at my wood to create a beautiful but functional table and wait for the big break when I can invite everyone to come and have dinner off it.
Or maybe I’m just a blockhead.
Talking of Blockheads…