Friday, October 16, 2009

Writing as a Career

Charles here, ready to step back in time.

Recently I picked up a copy of Starting in Life by Nathaniel C. Fowler, Jr., a career handbook published in 1906 and republished by The Lyons Press in 2003. In it the author offers thoughtful insights into thirty different careers, from physician to department store clerk, stenographer to steam railroad employee. The section on The Advertising Man inspired the purchase, but there’s also another on a career as a Littérateur, and it turns out I am one. As an expert on all things career, N.C. Fowler Jr. refused to settle for such a pedestrian term as writer, choosing to adopt instead word that’s now universally accepted as obsolete. And if he was that wrong on the word, I assumed his career advice would also be amusingly way the hell off.

Turns out N.C. Fowler Jr. could see the future. Not perfectly, but his glimpses are creepy accurate – as long as you can overlook his male-centric prose.

“Unless the author is a well-known writer, whose name is a household word, he cannot expect his book to bring him more than a few hundred dollars, but he may hope for the unexpected, which sometimes occurs.”

$100 in 1906 is roughly equivalent to $2,300 today. A few hundred dollars then is a few thousand dollars now and, sadly, he’s accurate. Here’s a few more pearls, plucked at random:

“Thus the unknown writer may long be a victim of chance, his fate depending at the start upon the judgment or caprice of some first reader, or upon public opinion, which is often fickle, and which at times appears to run amuck.”

“The desire to write often develops into a conceited belief in one’s own literary capacity.”

“Experience, as well as actual capacity, is a necessary requirement. Mo one can write properly about that of which he knows nothing. Any attempt to write without experience invites failure.”

“I would not advise any one to attempt to become an author if he must depend upon his pen for bread and butter.”

“The author cannot be made. Success in authorship is impossible unless there be actual capacity. All the colleges, and all the institutions in the world combined, and all the books read, and all the learning possible for one brain to hold, cannot produce a genuine author or an author capable of writing any work of originality or any work with real soul and color to it.”

“Seldom does an author of reputation produce an entirely worthless book. That which made his reputation refuses to allow him to do anything poorly, although there may be degrees of quality to his writing.”

“The literary market is overstocked. The road to literary fame is double-paved with the dry bones of failures. More people who cannot write think they can write than think they can do anything else that they cannot do.”

“The eagerness, I might say insanity, to write, has made possible the establishment of irresponsible publishing houses, who prey upon authors.

“The author, or would-be author, is seldom a worshiper of money.”

“Whether one writes a part of the time or all of the time, his best work is a production of concentration and application. The real author has a mission, and that mission he will fulfill if he lives.”

Any arguments?

3 comments:

Alan Orloff said...

Thanks, Charles. Amazing how prescient he was. (Did he have any predictions about the stock market?)

John Corrigan said...

What a gem! Just fabulous. Thanks for sharing.

Dana King said...

This should be mandatory reading for any writers who bemoan how the current environment makes it virtually impossible for writers to make a living. As with most artistic pursuits, it's always been this way. It's just that only the greatest successes are remembered in 100 years.