Last week, I had the privilege of speaking at the first-ever Newburyport (MA) Literary Festival, a smashingly successful event that brought writers and readers together for a lovely weekend in one of New England’s prettiest towns. Between speaking events, I chatted with one of the festival volunteers, and asked him if he was a writer. He answered: “Yes.” Then he added, with a wry note of self-deprecation: “But I’m just a hack.”
When I asked what he meant by that, I learned that he was a journalist for a local newspaper. “So you write, and you get paid for it,” I said. “If that makes you a hack, then I guess I’m a hack too.”
He seemed surprised by that. And pleased by it as well.
Since that conversation, I’ve been thinking a lot about that word, “hack.” I know that it’s a word British journalists sometimes use about themselves, and they say it with a sly sense of pride, because members of the brotherhood of ink-stained wretches know just how demanding a job they have.
But in the world of fiction-writing, “hack” is not normally what we like to call ourselves.
FreeDictionary.com defines a hack as: “A writer hired to produce routine or commercial writing.”
WordReference.com says a hack is “A mediocre and disdained writer.”
No doubt about it, the word is considered an insult. During an online discussion about commercial fiction last year, a pretty heated war of words ensued when one published writer admitted that he’d changed an element in his novel to please his editor and make the story more commercial. A second writer responded: “If you altered your art just to please your editor, that makes you nothing more than a hack.”
I’ve noticed, though, that when that accusation of “hack” is hurled, it’s almost always aimed at writers who are well-known and successful. I googled “hack writer” and found a website where you can post the names of authors you consider hacks. It’s no coincidence that the writers most often accused of hackdom are also the same writers you’ll find atop the bestseller charts, prolific writers who produce a book (or more) every year.
And who are the people accusing them of hackdom? It’s a pretty good bet they themselves are not best-selling authors.
Here we get back to that age-old tension between literary authors and commercial authors. Literary authors both disdain and envy commercial authors, and call them hacks. Commercial authors, on the other hand, don’t bother to think about literary authors at all, because they’re too busy writing books — and making a living at it.
Still, when a commercial author gets called a “hack”, it does sting.
So I think it’s time to take away that sting. It’s time to reexamine the definition of that word “hack”. Yes, hacks are indeed contracted to produce commercial writing. Commercial is a good thing. It simply means you get paid for writing a novel that readers want to read.
What about that definition of a hack being “a mediocre and disdained writer”? I would like to point out that Charles Dickens was considered a 24-year-old hack writer and journalist when he produced the Pickwick Papers. He sold big.
And today, he’s no longer considered a hack.
We never know how history will judge our books. Two generations from now, the writer disdained by his contemporaries may outsell the critics’ darlings by a factor of a million.
So to all my fellow commercial authors out there, don’t flinch from that insult, “you’re a hack.” Embrace the word. We hacks don’t spend hour after tiresome hour arguing with artistic blowhards about the poetic use of semi-colons. No, we just try to tell a damn good story. And we get paid for it.
And that’s okay.