March Diary
Gay marriage, tiger moms, and more.


John Derbyshire

I have got quite carried away here, I’ll admit. Heck, I’m only going to be in the country five days; and that, at a tourist hotel in a town (Bodrum) which I’m told is so cosmopolitan even the dogs in the street speak English. It’s highly unlikely I’ll get the chance to deploy an inferential conditional.

I am, though, going to look out keenly for an opportunity to utter this phrase from page 101 of Lewis’s masterpiece:ben gerici imişim — “I am said to be reactionary.”

Back to Grub Street     “Hit Show ‘Mad Men’ to Cut Costs by Cutting Characters,” said the headline in America’s Newspaper of Record, March 20.

I’ve never seen an episode of Mad Men, but I had to read the story anyway. Apparently it’s a successful show, some kind of office dramedy set in the 1960s. The creator of the thing is asking for a big salary raise, but the cable network that runs the show is fighting back, demanding cast cuts to finance the raise.

Just a routine power play then between a company and a star performer. But why did I feel I had to read the thing? The Grub Street factor, that’s why.

Back in the 18th century, the lives of writers (among which journalists were not yet a distinct category), poets, dramatists, and musical composers — “content providers,” as we should nowadays say — were very precarious. The systems of royalty and copyright were still being worked out in the courts. If you wrote a book, you hawked it around the booksellers until someone gave you ten guineas for it. Then you went back to your rented room in the poor quarter — “Grub Street” — and started another book, stopping at a pie shop on the way to eat your first square meal in six months. Doctor Johnson gave the canonical description of a writer’s life, which he knew all too well:

Deign on the passing World to turn thine Eyes,
And pause awhile from Learning to be wise;
There mark what Ills the Scholar’s Life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Garret, and the Jail.

(After his wranglings with Lord Chesterfield, Johnson changed the word “Garret” to “Patron” in later editions of the poem. For a grimly unsparing account of the 18th-century writer’s life, see Richard Holmes’s fine book Dr. J ohnson & Mr Savage.)

The life of a content provider improved immensely through the 19th and 20th centuries. Now it looks as though we’re headed back to Grub Street.

For example: I have an acquaintance whose life ambition was to be a musician and producer of music. (Pop music, that is.) He labored away at it, at one point having his own studio and equipment. He had to give up at last. “Nobody wants to pay for music anymore,” is his explanation. Now he’s a computer programmer.

Writing is headed the same way. So are movies and TV shows — that was what drew me to that headline.

Rob Long nailed it in his article on Charlie Sheen in the April 4 issue of National Review.

That’s what unlimited bandwidth . . . is doing to the old Hollywood business model. We are all moments away from cheap, knock-off stardom. Click around YouTube and you’ll be astonished at the number of people who regularly post videos of themselves. There are people you and I have never heard of, and yet there they are, talking into the camera, for millions of subscribers.

When labor gets this cheap . . . you start to get nervous. Charlie Sheen’s awful, repellent descent is a nasty glimpse into the future of the entertainment business, where some of us are busily Tweeting and webcasting and Facebook-updating ourselves, and some of us are sitting on the sofa trying to find something — anything — actually worth watching.

(Did I violate your copyright there, Rob? Sorry, pal.)


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