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Thursday, November 01, 2012

Professional Authors

"It is surprising what an influence titles shall have upon the mind, even though these titles be of our own making.  Like children, we dress up the puppets in finery, and then stand in astonishment at the plastic wonder.  I have been told of a rat-catcher here, who strolled for a long time about the villages near town, without finding any employment;  at last, however, he thought proper to take the title of his Majesty's Rat-catcher in ordinary, and thus succeeded beyond his expectations:  when it was known that he caught rats at court, all were ready to give him countenance and employment.

But of all the people, they who make books seem most perfectly sensible of the advantages of titular dignity.  All seem convinced, that a book written by vulgar hands can neither instruct nor improve;  none but kings, chams, and mandarins can write with any probability of success.  If the titles inform me right, not only kings and courtiers, but emperors themselves, in this country, periodically supply the press.

A man here who should write, and honestly confess that he wrote, for bread, might as well send his manuscript to fire the baker's oven;  not one creature will read him:  all must be court-bred poets, or pretend at least to be court-bred, who can expect to please.  Should the caitiff fairly avow a design of emptying our pockets and filling his own, every reader would instantly forsake him:  even those who write for bread themselves would combine to worry him, perfectly sensible that his attempts only served to take the bread out of their mouths. 

And yet this silly prepossession the more amazes me, when I consider, that almost all the excellent productions in wit that have appeared here were purely the offspring of necessity;  their Drydens, Butlers, Otways, and Farqhars, were all writers for bread.  Believe me, my friend, hunger has a most amazing faculty of sharpening the genius;  and he who, with a full belly, can think like a hero, after a course of fasting, shall rise to the sublimity of a demi-god.

But what will most amaze is, that this very set of men, who are now so much depreciated by fools, are, however, the very best writers they have among them at present.  For my own part, were I to buy a hat, I would not have it from a stocking-maker, but a hatter;  were I to buy shoes, I should not go to the tailor's for that purpose.  It is just so with regard to wit:  did I, fo;r my life, desire to be well served, I would apply only to those who made it their trade, and lived by it.  You smile at the oddity of my opinion:  but be assured, my friend, that wit is in some measure mechanical;  and that a man long habituated to catch at even its resemblence, will at last be happy enough to possess the substance.  By a long habit of writing he acquires a justness of thinking, and a mastery of manner, which holiday writers, even with ten times his genius, may vainly attempt to equal.

How then are they decieved who expect from title, dignity, and exterior circumstance, an excellence, which is in some measure acquired by habit, and sharpened by necessity!  You have seen, like me, many literary reputations, promoted by the influence of fashion, which have scarce survived the possessor;  you have seen the poor hardly earn the little reputation they acquired, and their merit only acknowledged when they were incapable of enjoying the pleasures of popularity:  such, however, is the reputation worth possessing;  that which is hardly earned is hardly lost.--Adieu."The Citizen of the World, Letter XCIII, by Oliver Goldsmith

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