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Freelance Writers and the Changing Terrain of Intellectual Life in Britain, 1880–1980

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

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The terrain of British intellectual life in the twentieth century was dominated by two major features: freelance writers and university scholars. At the elite level, as Noel Annan showed, the two types—independent thinkers and academics—can be treated as one class, linked by personal connections and by common attitudes arising largely from the old school tie. However, when intellectuals beyond the elite stratum are surveyed, it becomes clear that the fortunes of these two features of the intellectual landscape differed sharply. The university teachers grew rapidly in number and made themselves into what Harold Perkin calls “the key profession.” But as John Gross has contended, freelance writers, despite a rich heritage from the nineteenth century, seemed, especially in their own eyes, to form an old and decaying mountain range. From 1880 to 1980 freelance writers experienced a pervasive and intensifying sense of crisis in their trade and in their cultural role. John Wain, a successful novelist and critic, stated the matter plainly in 1973: contemplation of the difficulties of “being an author,” he said, always threw him into “a black depression in which I could slash my wrists.”

How can one explain the pessimism of freelance writers, their sense of being increasingly marginalized? Were their complaints simply habitual expressions of a writerly pose common since the romantic period? After all, many of the broad social and cultural trends in Britain between 1880 and 1980 should have been advantageous to independent writers.

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Research Article
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Albion , Volume 34 , Issue 2 , Summer 2002 , pp. 232 - 267
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Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 2002

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References

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4 Wain, John, “Not a Profession but a Condition,” in Findlater, Richard, ed., Author! Author! (London, 1984), p. 301Google Scholar. Since they worked in the print medium, throughout this paper I define freelance or independent intellectuals as the men and women of letters who wrote for a relatively broad general audience to whom they were connected by a market for published works.

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7 For these difficulties, see Findlater, Richard, The Book Writers: Who Are They? (London, 1966), pp. 67Google Scholar. As for the Census, there is no sure way to tell what proportion of the larger group given in the censuses were authors, and besides, the line between “authors” and “journalists” has never been absolutely clear. However, the most knowledgeable person, Richard Findlater, of the Society of Authors, estimated in 1962 that the number of authors stood at between 6,500 and 7,000. The 1961 census total for the group of authors, editors, and journalists was about 28,000; hence the proportion of authors was about 25% of the total. Applying that admittedly rough rule of thumb to the census figures for the century yields the figures in Table 1. See Findlater, , What Are Writers Worth? (London, 1963)Google Scholar; and Victor Bonham-Carter, Authors by Profession, 2 vols (London, 1978), 2:93.

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97 Ibid., 2:145. For comparison, The New Statesman, notorious among writers for its low pay, gave only ten guineas per thousand words in 1952 and eighteen in 1967; the TLS paid only seven guineas in 1952 and ten in 1967.

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129 Bonham-Carter, , Authors by Profession, 2:120–25Google Scholar. Likewise, an attempt to form a writers' cooperative in 1969 quickly failed. See Laing, , “The Production of Literature,” in Sinfield, , ed., Society and Literature, 1945–1970, p. 167Google Scholar.

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146 Quoted in Hoggart, Richard, Uses of Literacy, p. 154Google Scholar.

147 From The Publishers' Circular, quoted in McAleer, , Popular Reading and Publishing, p. 248Google Scholar.

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150 Quoted in Findlater, , Author! Author!, pp. 149Google Scholar and 151. For Priestley's view, see Atkins, , Priestley, p. 259Google Scholar.

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154 Findlater, , The Book Writers: Who Are They?, p. 5Google Scholar; McGuigan, , Writers and the Arts Council, pp. 17 and 36Google Scholar.

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Freelance Writers and the Changing Terrain of Intellectual Life in Britain, 1880–1980
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Freelance Writers and the Changing Terrain of Intellectual Life in Britain, 1880–1980
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