Guest Blog: Samuel Johnson vs. Google: Writing for Money in a Tough Market
If you’ve never heard of Samuel Johnson, he’s the guy who wrote the first English dictionary.
He is an 18th century version of what the 20th century called a ‘copy-writer,’ and what the 21st century calls a ‘content-manager’ or sometimes an ‘SEO.’ He used language like a kind of molten currency, and deployed copy as a vessel for transactions in the emerging free-market; with the interests of his patrons always tacked-on or barely submerged in his prose, the specs supplied by book merchants always at least partly over-determining the dimensions and style of his work. His life and works are a kind of microcosm of the industry in which I find myself presently self-employed.
Samuel Johnson: the 18th century equivalent of a Googlebot. He read his way through the library of texts available in his era and tore them apart, endlessly sub-dividing and compartmentalizing in order to determine the meaning and value of each word relative to any number of contingencies. His dictionary is primarily known for its brilliant use of quotations to define words in context. For example, he found, in his textual survey, 58 senses of the word ‘take’: to apprehend, to steal, to appropriate, a percentage of profit etc. Each of these senses is illustrated by a quotation.
I will spare our readers a detailed comparison of the similarities between Johnson’s methodology and the LSA & LDA systems that Google’s Algorithm employs toward a similar goal (that is, ‘to develop a functional linguistic omniscience in order to anticipate the way that people use words and why). Suffice it to say that the similarities between Johnson’s methodology and Google’s are many and the resonances are striking.
Johnson was a kind of demiurge. Tourettic, obese, blind in one-eye, deaf-in-one ear, prolific beyond all normal human limitations, he both appeared and behaved like more like a level 5 hurricane, than like just another ‘literary fellow.’ Similar to the way that Google seems ‘super-human,’ so did Samuel Johnson. The conversation, recorded in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, is evocative of the way in which Johnson often came off sounding like a force of nature:
Dr. Adams found him one day busy at is Dictionary, when the following dialogue ensued...
ADAMS: This is a great work, Sir. How are you to get all the etymologies?
JOHNSON: Why, Sir, here is a shelf with Junius and Skinner…
ADAMS: But, Sir, how can you do this in three years?
JOHNSON: Sir, I have no doubt that I can do it in three years.
ADAMS: But the French Academy, which consists of forty members, took forty years to compile their Dictionary.
JOHNSON: Sir, thus it is. This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman. …With so much ease and pleasantry could he talk of that prodigious labour which he had undertaken to execute. (64)
I could write a book or at least a series of posts on what today’s SEO’s and content-managers today could learn from Samuel Johnson as a model and an inspiration.
For today’s post, I will confine myself to one aspect of his praxis: he wrote for money.
Money was both carrot and stick for Johnson. He was always in debt, and always shooting to clear a high bar, always living above his means, and lay the groundwork to pay off the people who were capitalizing him. He was one of the first writers to succeed spectularly according to this model. ‘The Muse’ was just a cameo character in his career. Reading Johnson’s work is like looking at a snapshot of the moment that literary production shifted from the patronage model (where writers wrote for patrons) to the free-market model (where writers wrote for a large, and not necessarily aristocratic literary public). The excerpts of his life work appearing in Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson’ are a litany of solicitations and submissions. Quotations from letters where he’s quibbling and cajoling with his publisher’s greatly outnumber quotations from his actual work, a proportion which accurately reflects the nuts and bolts of his actual life and ‘literary production.’ Contemplating the cost and agonizingly slow speed of domestic shipping in England in the early 18th century is enough to turn the stomach of any modern day blogger, yet—by all appearances—it hardly slowed Johnson down. Apparently he got a good rhythm going and kept it going with great time-management skills.
Here is a quotation from his letter to Mr. Cave, whom he is begging to publish ‘London,’ which became a wildfire commercial success for the aforementioned Cave:
“I do not doubt but you will look over this poem with another eye, and reward it in a different manner, from a mercenary bookseller, who counts the lines he is to purchase, and considers nothing but the bulk”(38).
The exception here proves the rule. For the most part Johnson wrote according to the specs of ‘the mercenary bookseller, who counts the lines he is to purchase and considers nothing but the bulk.’ And yet, Boswell is always remarking that, ‘thankfully’ Johnson was never able to get ahead financially: otherwise he would never have produced so many great works.
As Boswell writes:
In 1756 Johnson found that the great fame of his Dictionary had not set him about the necessity of “making provisions for the day that was passing over him.” No royal or noble patron extended a munificent hand to give independence to the man who had conferred stability on the language of his country. We may feel indignant that there should have been such unworthy neglect; but we must, at the same time, congratulate ourselves, when we consider, that to this very neglect, operating to rouse the natural indolence of his constitution, we owe many valuable productions, which otherwise, perhaps, might never have appeared.(108)
While the specs have changed, the rules remain more or less the same. We’ve all got to figure out a way to make a living by our pens or our keyboards. Without a gun to our heads, most of us wouldn’t be able to muster the energy to produce our best works.
All references from Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson. 1791. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co. 1946.
Thomas Doane is a freelance writer, blogging at gospel(s)
and a consultant, with expertise in shipping services.