DJ Taylor’s The Prose Factory is a survey of the lot of writers from 1918 to 2016 using the hard currency of earnings and sale figures. It is propelled by Taylor’s remarkable breadth of knowledge, the infectious interest of his interest in the topic and the many, often tangential, insights he brings from his own experience. When Taylor discusses the advances writers have received over the century, and the means by which they have supplemented such earnings, there is an air of experience that gives the discussion weight. Taylor is a charming guide, a man of many anecdotes, who draws in the reader with sentences as innocuous as, when discussing World War 1, “four years of military conflict had a long-lasting, if sometimes surreptitious, effect on the novelist’s ability to devise a plot.”
The book is peppered with off-hand observations, perspectives that answer old questions in wholly new ways, thought-provoking moments that immediately seem obvious (if you had bothered to think about it). There are entertaining potted biographies of once eminent writers, such as JB Priestley, and those long forgotten, like Hugh Walpole. A vivid portrait of the personality, often containing the type of cutting remark (TS Eliot’s supper parties are “grim-sounding entertainments”) that succinctly sums up a character, is accompanied by a description of why their work should still be read. Taylor’s attitude echoes that of the elder Pliny who once wrote that ‘no book is wholly bad’. The index, on its own, is a wide-ranging guide to writers who are known, if at all, only to PhD students.
The focus is the observation that “the commercialisation of literature is as old as Caxton.” Three chapters spread throughout the book are headed ‘Making A Living’, and they detail authors’ actual earnings between 1919 – 1939, 1937 – 1970 and 1970 to the present. They make grim reading.
In 1929 Arnold Bennett made £29,000; the vast majority of published writers in 2017 will not make anywhere close to that from their writing (and that is if Bennett’s earnings are not adjusted for inflation). This is a book full of incidental pleasures, facts that bring you to a standstill, and is as much a compelling insight into London property prices as its literary inhabitants. In the mid-1950s Angus Wilson’s monthly rent on a Pimlico flat was slightly over £200 (at today’s prices). This foray into the type of property voyeurism normally to be found in Homes Under the Hammer is a delight. If London rental prices of the past are surprising then so is Taylor’s statement: “in 1969 it was still – just – possible for a newcomer to scrape by on literary journalism.”
Taylor begins his survey of how writers paid their (improbably cheap) rents at a time when the novelist turned to journalism for an income – there is a bracing description of George Orwell surviving on the writing of book reviews – but ends when teaching other people how to write novels is more profitable than writing them. Over the twentieth-century writers have moved from New Grub Street to UEA. It’s this focus on the practicalities, “the writer as businessman”, that brings Taylor’s portraits of canonical figures into vivid life. From James Joyce haggling with T.S. Eliot over “special rates” for contributing to a magazine to the, very funny, news that in 1975 Kingsley Amis advertised many different drinks, Martini, Campari and Smirnoff among them. Among the detail, the facts and figures, and the span of time (over a full century) The Prose Factory emphasises how repetitive the experience of the writer has been through the ages: “many of the complaints that tend to be levelled at the literary world of 2016 could have been filed in 1926.” Writers have always, mostly, been poor, lived in garrets and been forced to do jobs they dislike to find the time to write the work they believe in.
The Prose Factory should be given to everyone who walks into a creative writing class (especially those who are unlikely to visit a careers office).
Any Cop?: Taylor brings a conversational casualness, and eye for decades-old literary gossip, that makes literary history fascinating. It will point anyone towards writers they will want to read for the first time and will give new reasons for re-reading others.