Hack writer  

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"The The Literary Underground of the Old Regime introduces us to the shadowy world of pirate publishers, garret scribblers, under-the-cloak book peddlers, smugglers, and police spies that composed the literary underground of the Enlightenment." --Sholem Stein

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Hack writer is a colloquial, usually pejorative, term used to refer to a writer who is paid to write low-quality, quickly put-together articles or books 'to order', often with a short deadline. In a fiction-writing context, the term is used to describe writers who are paid to churn out sensational, lower-quality 'pulp' fiction such as 'true crime' novels or 'bodice ripping' erotic paperbacks. In journalism, the term is used to describe a writer who is deemed to operate as a 'mercenary' or 'pen for hire', expressing their client's political opinions in pamphlets or newspaper articles. So-called 'hack writers' are usually paid by the number of words in their book or article; as a result, hack writing has a reputation for quantity taking precedence over quality.

Pietro Aretino has been labeled a proto-hack writer.


The term 'hack writer' began being used in the 1700s, "...when publishing was establishing itself as a business employing writers who could produce to order." The derivation of the term "hack" was a "...shortening of hackney, which described a horse that was easy to ride and available for hire." In 1728, Alexander Pope wrote The Dunciad, which was a satire of "the Grub-street Race" of commercial writers who worked in Grub Street, a London district that was home to a bohemian counterculture of impoverished writers and poets. In the late 1800s, Anthony Trollope's novel The Way We Live Now (1875) depicts a female hack writer whose career was built on social connections rather than writing skill.

A number of writers who subsequently became famous authors had to work as low-paid hack writers early in their careers, or during a downturn in their fortunes. As a young man, Anton Chekhov had to support his family by writing short newspaper articles; Arthur Koestler penned a dubious The Encyclopœdia of Sexual Knowledge for the popular press; Samuel Beckett translated for the French Reader's Digest; and William Faulkner churned out Hollywood scripts.

A number of films have depicted hack writers, perhaps because the way these authors are 'prostituting' their creative talents makes them an interesting character study. In the film adaptation of Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), author Graham Greene added a hard-drinking hack writer named Holly Martins. In the film Sunset Boulevard (1950) a Hollywood hack screenwriter named Joe Gillis pays his bills by becoming a gigolo. In Jean-Luc Godard's film Contempt (1964), a hack screenwriter is paid to doctor a script. In the 2000s film Adaptation., Spike Jonze depicts an ill-educated character named Donald Kaufman who finds he has a knack for churning out cliché-filled movie scripts.

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