Literate, nous?

DECADES of dumbing-down (and posy "dumbing-up", a Spectator scribe claims) have made freelance life increasingly farcial. Specialists (old thespian hacks, say) don't have the time for words-of-one-syl-la-ble explanations to section editors who blithely order copy and then spike it rather than reveal their knowledge gaps.

For instance (metaphorically speaking, of course), you'd expect an arts'n'culture person at a thinkers' national who reads a lot of books to have heard of, say, the Shakespeare First Folio.

Imagine a piece to be published at the time of the Channel 4 exposé of Rosie Boycott's sparkling if inexplicable sojourn in Docklands; 13 September 1998 also happened to be the 400th anniversary of Ben Jonson's first farce. Jonson defined wimmin writers as PC blots on the literary landscape who suffered from pundit envy. He launched the timeless "æsthetics vs Grub Street razzle" debate with his prototype comedy about sneaky sex, cover-ups and blustering egomania, all set in the context of the poetic class wars. A previous libel, which earned him six months, was titled Isle of Dogs. His tipple? Canary, as presumably shipped to said Wharf. (Historians treasure such trivia.)

One might expect an editor (during a poetry boom) to look up the name of the first Poet Laureate, and not to need to ask what the freelance meant by "Ben Jonson dropped his `h'."

One might be baffled if the page editor were enraged at the prospect of being outed by the piece as working at the Dark Tower; and more so to be heckled by fax and phone, with accusations of "sub-Iain Sinclairism" (East-End psychogeographic sentimentalism ed) and worse. As for noting that Jonson's own collection scooped Shakespeare's First Folio (for which he famously wrote a blurb), the page editor indeed hadn't heard of that, so how on earth could the (literate, intelligent, aspirational) readers be presumed to know what it was?

It's the stuff sitcoms are made of -- especially if you tape all phone calls. The page editor denied everything and refused to pay a proper kill fee.

Jan/Feb 1999
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