I'm afraid there was no wondrous golden time for writers--oh, there were times when disparate talents came together in one region and vied with one another, but even then there was often jealousy and insufficient reward. Look back, and you find Robert Greene railing at that "shake scene" and "upstart crow," a Shakespeare "beautified" with pilfered feathers. Or look at the denizens of Grub Street, journalists and poets struggling to feed and house themselves in a poor bohemian quarter, only to be pilloried by that clever and amusing cripple, Alexander Pope.
John Rocque's 1746 map of London, showing Grub Street in Cripplegate Ward, above and to the right of St. Giles and the Cripple-gate churchyard--running from Chiswell to Fore Street. Public domain, via Wikipedia
In an essay for The New Republic, "Down and Out in the Gig Economy," Jacob Silverman (lovely name!) lodges a complaint that "freelance journalism is a monetized hobby," that it is nearly impossible to do more that "serve the whims of capital." Not only has he not found a secure, salaried perch, but he has learned a truth that many writers know--that it is quite possible to write a book that critics love but that does not sell, for reasons out of the writer's control. Well, I sympathize with his lot and agree that journalism is in a parlous way, that there were some brief, better years for essayists in the last century, and that it's difficult for a writer of any sort to find a happy niche. Publishing tends to be a winner-take-all scheme. Go to any airport bookstore and check out the Top 10 books on sale. There you go. Winner-take-almost-all!
Though I'd love for the writer's life to be easier and more straightforward, it is not these challenges that make me uneasy with "Down and Out" but the essay itself as revelation of how such disappointments may harm the writer, either for a period of time or permanently. Many, many writers have challenges like the ones Silverman names, and there are other, unmentioned disappointments that pop up unexpectedly--quirky, oddball twists of publishing fate. In the kingdom of writer-dooms, Melville has long been a hero of mine. Years after any notice was paid to him, an old man, he pursued the work it was given him to do, writing poems, writing Billy Budd. He endured the agony of being ignored and thought mad (and perhaps of being mad from neglect for a time), and yet he kept harrowing his piece of literary ground and planting new seed, even when no one remained to believe that what he made would mean anything in the world. He persisted. He won a victory, although he had no earthly reward for doing so. But I have known writers in similar situations whose minds and spirits were bent by lack of notice, lack of support, and who did not have the resilience to unbend. I won't say their names, but some drift into mind.
The dream of creating something strong and true matters to the soul. A strange joy, it burns in the mind. Resentment and bitterness will never help a work grow and achieve beauty. Putting words together in fresh patterns is a kind of alchemy that transforms the inner being of the writer--creation may make the self larger and more resilient on the inside. Yet self-poisoning by resentment and bitterness remains a risk for any maker. To a writer, young or old, I'd say that there's no shame in pursuing some other dream if resentment becomes a blight, just as there's no shame in keeping on despite self-judgment or the world's judgment, and in striving to pierce the cloud of bitterness...