Being a romance author, I can identify with the adjectival meaning of this week’s word.
A street near Moorfields, formerly the supposed habitation of many persons who wrote for the booksellers: hence a Grub-street writer means a hackney author, who manufactures books for the booksellers.
According to The Grub Street Project, for true 18th century writers such as Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, Grub Street represented the worst of the pretender lot: “base commercialization, hack writing, and the prostitution of literary ideals.” Picture the look of horror on the face of your English teacher that time she assigned the class book reports, and you chose Stephen King.
Even the buildings in Moorfields seem to highlight the difference between the hack and the authentic literati. It’s pure speculation on my park, but I’d expect to see Grub Streeters in the former and Jonathan Swift in the latter.
But what truly separated the drudge with a quill from the literary nobility? Style? Substance? Subject? The quality of the paper?
Samuel Derrick was the Grub Street hack generally credited with composing the annual Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. The pocket publication was sold for two shillings and sixpence; about 8,000 copies were in circulation each year. The list contained all the details would one expect for a directory of prostitutes, some specific, some general, some complimentary, and some warnings. The content began with suggestive drawings, a long essay on the benefits of prostitution, and eventually politically-tinged arguments for the support of the sex trade as a means of benefit to the public, or a call to scorn not the seller but the buyer. The descriptions of each prostitute ranged from explicit and florid to matter-of-fact.
Miss B—lt—n, No. 14, Lisle-Street,
Why should they e’er give me pain,
Who to give me joy disdain;
All I ask of mortal man,
Is to————-me whilst he can.
These four lines were not more applicable to Miss C—tl—y, than to this present reigning lover of the sport; she is rather above mediocrity in height and size, with fine dark hair, and a pair of bewitching hazel eyes; very agreeable and loving, but she is not so unreasonable as to expect constancy; it is a weak unprofitable quality in a woman, and if she can persuade her husband or keeper that she has it, it is just the same as though she really possessed it. Miss B—lt—n is conscious she loves variety, as it conduces both to her pleasure and interest; and she gives each of her gallants the same liberty of conscience, therefore she never lessens the fill of joy, by any real or affected freaks of jealousy; when her lovers come to her, they are welcome, and they are equally so when they fly to another’s arms. Indeed, when they do so, it is generally to her advantage, as she finds they return to her with re- doubled ardour, and her charms are in general more dear, from a comparison with others; and although her age is bordering upon twenty-four, and she has been a traveller in our path four years, her desires are not the least abated, nor does she set less value on herself.
Miss H—rd—y, No. 45, Newman Street.
Her look serene does purest softness wear,
Her face exclaims her fairest of the fair.
This lady borrows her name from her late keeper, who is now gone to the Indias, and left her to seek support on the wide common of independence; she is now just arrived at the zenith of perfection, devoid of art and manners, as yet untutor’d by fashion, her charms have for their zest every addition youth and simplicity can add. She has beauty with- out pride, elegance without affectation, and innocence without dissimulation; and not knowing how long this train of perfections will last, we would advise our reader to make hay whilst the sun shines.
While there is no doubt that this is the 18th century man’s version of the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book, a buyer’s guide for acquiring companionship of a certain nature and duration, some of the writings of the so-called true artists have some questionable attributes.
I’ve never been a fan of Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. Yes, it’s satire. Yes, it’s a parody of the heroic. But yes, it’s also demeaning to women, specifically Belinda. Someone stole something of hers. Something from her person. Without permission. I don’t like the presumption that others decided whether Belinda had the right to be angry, affronted, or saddened by the loss of her lock. Whether her lock was of any value or worth pursuit. Whether she had the right to fight to get it back.
Satire, by definition, is “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices.” I don’t like where the satire in The Rape could lead: it’s okay to ridicule Belinda’s upset over her lock, and she is being stupid. The passive aggressive chiding to ‘get over it’ as unimportant in lines 25-34 in Canto V has always made me uneasy. Especially since a man, who held all the power in that era, was the one giving the condescending scold.
But since, alas! frail beauty must decay,
Curl’d or uncurl’d, since Locks will turn to grey;
Since painted, or not painted, all shall fade,
And she who scorns a man, must die a maid;
What then remains but well our pow’r to use,
And keep good-humour still whate’er we lose?
And trust me, dear! good-humour can prevail,
When airs, and flights, and screams, and scolding fail.
Beauties in vain their pretty eyes may roll;
Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul.
Boy, did I chase a rabbit there. Let’s keep chasing.
Romance authors are often treated like Grub Street hacks, as we’re considered the redheaded step-children of the world of books. If we could write, we’d write literature. You must read that italicized sentence with your nose wrinkled in distaste.
Even statistics showing the dominance of the romance novel industry are trivialized, with the hardly-subtle jabs hitting both the authors and the romance readers: romance = sex. Poor frustrated authors and readers.
At $1.44 billion, Romance and Erotica are #1 in sales. That figure includes self-published romance as well. With 30 million dedicated readers, it’s hard to miss if you write in this genre. As anyone in advertising knows, sex sells. ~Erica Verillo, The Writing Cooperative
Do you know which book genres make the most money? I surely didn’t before doing some research. To be perfectly honest, I never really thought about it. We usually focus on which books do well, or what the top books of the year were, but we never really consider which genre is the one bringing in the bucks. 1) Romance/Erotica – $1.44 billion. From the success of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy and the number of novels written by people like Danielle Steele, there’s no surprise that romance and erotica are #1. ~Mahogany Turner-Francis, Bookstr
I wish I had a dollar for every time romance genre data and conclusions are mentioned in the same breath as FSOG. There’s a hilarious meme that explains FSOG better than that.
At least laughter is good for the soul.
This post took a long trip this week to say that writers or a certain skill set in the long 18th century were known as Grub Street hacks. And that there were likely some in the bunch that didn’t deserve the moniker.
- Slang term taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
- Dive deep into The Grub Street Project. There’s a wealth of fascinating stuff pertaining to the long 18th century, from maps to people to works to trades in its archives.
- Check out the collection of gorgeous engravings of John Thomas Smith curated by The Gentle Author at Spitalfields Life.
- You can read the entire Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies from 1788…but it’s pretty ick.
- Read Pope for yourself in his Complete Works.
- I’m not giving a bulleted list shout-out to sneerers of the romance industry. Nor did I tag them in this post. Links are provided at the end of the quotes above.