Raymond Williams attributes the etymology of literature to the fourteenth century Latin word ‘litteratura’ which meant ‘polite learning through reading’. Those being read, the ‘teachers’ as it were, were the litterateurs – those involved in the business of literature. Business is often seen as anathema to literature, a lowly intruder who leaves grubby footprints on the marble floors of the ivory tower that is art. However, by the end of eighteenth century, the world of literature was becoming increasingly ‘busy’ as Samuel Johnson complained as he wrote up his age as the Age of Authors. Clifford Siskin points to this age as one which saw the simultaneous rise of modern disciplinarity and modern professionalism, and literature was the ‘discipline that took writing as its professional work’ . The mid-eighteenth century saw the debut of the term ‘professional’ as an adjective describing a particular kind of behaviour and ‘its definition was enabled hierarchically only in opposition to the word ‘amateur’.‘Amateur’ derived from the Latin amator, and carried with it the connotation of dilettantism, of indulging in a pastime for the love of it rather than for remuneration.
However, the Romantic vision of the artist, even in academic circles, has till recently denied the artist’s professional nature. The Romantic poet has himself been responsible, at least in part, for this representation of being far removed and undesirous of the vulgar business of publication and the inevitable public gaze. Take the examples of Keats, who in his fragment Ode to May dreams of dying ‘unheard/ Save of the quiet Primrose, and the span/Of heaven and a few ears’, or Shelley’s famous description of the poet in his Defense of Poetry as ‘a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude’. The underpinnings of this notion are not hard to locate, if one takes into consideration the amateur status of the Renaissance and Restoration poet, who wrote for a patron and his coterie. But even in this tradition, the poet’s work was always destined for the eyes of a reader. Indeed, an audience was guaranteed if a writer was fortunate enough to have an interested and a generous patron. The reward that the poet laboured towards, more than the pecuniary or contemporary recognition, was posterity. This thirst for immortality, evident by self-inscription even in early writers such as Dante and Chaucer, grew in the face of the rediscovery of the ancients in the Enlightenment.
The advent of print at least guaranteed material posterity, and more significantly, allowed for mass replication. The desire for posterity thus now sublimated itself in an urge for more immediate success, and in an increasingly mercantile world, this meant success in financial terms.
Late seventeenth century publishing centred on the sensational, in such forms as broadsheets and pamphlets, rather than ‘literary’ texts. The establishment of the Stationer’s Company in 1557 as a controlling body of what could be released into the public domain necessarily curtailed the circulation of these media. Its stranglehold on the publishing business and its exercise of censorship affected publishers more closely than authors. Strangely, writers were still incidental to the publishing business, which then encompassed the practices of printing and bookselling as well. But ‘An Act for the Encouragement of Learning by vesting Copies of printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of such Copies during the Times therein mentioned’ (1709) raised the author’s status significantly. Its preamble read:
Whereas Printers, Booksellers and other Persons have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing, Reprinting and Publishing, or causing to be Printed, Reprinted and Published Books and other Writings, without the consent of the Authors or Proprietors of such Books and Writings, to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families…
The final clause had a proviso stipulating that the author would possess the ‘sole right of printing or disposing of copies’ after the expiration of the original fourteen-year period. This initial recognition gave rise to the last profession associated with printing, one that was bound to the press and was born because of it; the profession of the author.