When hacks attract: Serious artists are drawn to tales of mercenary scribes
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 19 August 2003)

Who could love a hack writer? Notoriously, hacks prostitute their talents and don't much care about the results. But they turn up as characters in movies and literature so often that we know there's something about them that serious artists find attractive. Film directors, in particular, love to imagine the lives of these mercenary scoundrels. Last year, in Adaptation, Spike Jonze set before us a spectacular case.

The scribe-for-hire in Adaptation is the fictional Donald Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), twin brother of the real scriptwriter, Charlie Kaufman (also Nicolas Cage). Donald comes across as the most infuriating kind of success, a hey-no-problem writer who finds it easy to put words together and whips off a hot Hollywood script according to a formula he learns by taking a class with a script doctor. He's crude and ill-read, but he waltzes happily through the whole process while thoughtful, neurotic Charlie goes crazy trying to turn an unfilmable book called The Orchid Thief into a movie. Donald will never know he's simply assembled a collection of movie cliches, because his head contains nothing but cliches.

Characters identified as hacks are almost a tradition in films. To add a light touch to Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), Graham Greene created an author of western novels, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), self-described as "just a hack writer who drinks too much and falls in love with girls." The boyish American innocence projected by Martins nicely sets off the seedy, corrupt, post-war Vienna of the film's background, and emphasizes the villainy of the charming but satanic Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Martins also gives Greene the chance to insert a satirical scene in which some literary pseuds, imagining him to be a serious writer, conscript him as a guest speaker and demand he discuss James Joyce.

In Sunset Boulevard (1950), Billy Wilder, who made his way upward with difficulty and knew something about hackery, made a desperately underemployed Hollywood writer, Joe Gillis (William Holden), into the gigolo of a seriously deluded silent star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), reworking ancient melodrama and morality plays into a grimly effective comedy that nobody who ever saw it forgets.

Contempt (1964), perhaps Jean-Luc Godard's best film, remains for certain his most audience-pleasing piece of work. It derives from a novel by Alberto Moravia and centres on a hack screenwriter assigned to fix the script for a Fritz Lang film version of The Odyssey.

The writer (Michel Piccoli) rarely thinks about the film's problems and instead worries about the loyalty of his wife (Brigitte Bardot), who stands in imminent danger of being seduced by an arrogant Hollywood producer (Jack Palance). Money and movies have so corrupted Piccoli that he appears willing to trade his wife for a film contract, eliciting her contempt (Le Mepris of the French title). Godard may have intended to tell a melancholy tale about the inevitable moral squalor in the movie business, but he ended up with a gorgeously romantic-looking film. Piccoli's typically hackish insouciance about art (so different from Godard's own solemn intensity), gives decadence a certain charm.

An artist can recognize a hack as a fellow creature, partly because they usually share high levels of facility and shrewdness. Artists also know that sometimes no more than a millimetre separates the hack from the genuine article. They know William Faulkner's talent didn't totally desert him during all the time he spent money-grubbing in Hollywood, working on some 44 properties, five of them for his friend Howard Hawks. Given that he was also writing Nobel-level novels at the time, it stands to reason that something interesting happened when he fiddled with screenplays. Words flowed from his typewriter; he claimed he could do a whole script in two days, "if the wind is right," which suggests he wasn't suffering.

The enigma of this subject goes back at least to Samuel Johnson, who began as a hack, famously said that no sensible man writes for anything but money, and yet emerged as the greatest English literary man of the 18th century. At what point did his towering intelligence push his hackery into the background?

The concept of hackwork spread in Johnson's time, when publishing was establishing itself as a business employing writers who could produce to order. "Hack" was a shortening of hackney, which described a horse that was easy to ride and available for hire. In 1728, Alexander Pope, in The Dunciad, satirized "the Grub-street Race" of commercial writers, who were so called because Grub Street was the home base of some low-life London scribblers; later, perhaps in search of a literary upgrade, its name was changed to Milton Street.

Anthony Trollope's masterpiece, The Way We Live Now (1875), opens with a hack writer, Lady Carbury, a silly and sentimental woman but a model of efficiency, who churns out one bad book after another. She believes that success comes not from writing well but from having the right friends and patrons, especially newspaper editors and reviewers. We sympathize with her, a little, because she labours to support the one great love in her life, her worthless, vicious son, Sir Felix, who has gambled away her modest fortune without losing any of her affection. Trollope himself wrote so many books, so fast, that many believed there must have been considerable hackery involved.

Anyone trying to study hacks in modern literature has to deal with Chekhov supporting his no-good drunken family by writing desperately unfunny newspaper sketches in his youth, Aldous Huxley calling himself an overpaid hack when he wrote the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice with Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy (a nice piece of work, actually), Arthur Koestler masquerading as a doctor on his bogus Dictionary of Sexuality, and Samuel Beckett preparing translations for the French version of Reader's Digest. Thanks to Randolph Churchill we can legally define "hack." He sued a newspaper that called him that, arguing that so long as he believed what he wrote, he couldn't fairly be called a hack; the court agreed and he collected. But Raymond Chandler defined a more direct form of mercenary authorship with his answer to someone who asked what kind of writing makes the most money: "Ransom notes."

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