Thursday, March 29, 2012

What's wrong with being a hack?

Lucas Hare told me that in his Desert Island Discs Barry Cryer was happy to call himself a hack. I’m the same. I don’t understand why some people think it's a term of abuse. I’ve always understood that hack was derived from the word Victorian gentlemen shouted to get a hackney carriage. A hack writer was one who plied for hire and would write for money. This distinguished them from the pre-Samuel Johnson scribblers who didn’t need to because they had private incomes.

I don’t understand why people look down on the idea of writers or musicians or painters practising their trades for money. They’re quite comfortable with the idea of doctors and plumbers and cab drivers doing the same thing. Is this a peculiarly British trait, to feel that you should distrust the motives of anyone who’s doing something for the money and exalt anyone working for free?

I recently tweeted that  “beginning an email with the words ‘I’m an unsigned artist’ was like saying ‘I’m an unemployed chef’”. I’d just received an email that began:
I am an unsigned artist, with a style of rock which you may find interesting
I got a lot of flack from people, one of whom described themselves as ‘proudly unsigned’. Surely announcing yourself as "unsigned" is a classic case of leading with a feature that isn't a benefit, in the language of sales. I don’t care whether you’re an unsigned strummer. All I care is whether you’re any good. Ditto if you're a chef. Being unsigned or unemployed doesn’t put you on a higher moral plane than Coldplay or Jamie Oliver - nor does it make your music or lasagne any better.


  1. Surely a parallel here with session musicians, the "hacks" of their medium, who earn enormous respect for plying their trade?

  2. As an experienced hack, you should know that it's flak not flack. Flacks are a different sort of hack.

  3. Funnily enough, I don’t associate the word ‘hack’ with doing things for money at all. When I was at university, the term was widely used for anyone who seemed to be carrying out an activity because it would look good on their CV, rather than for enjoyment or any other reason. Student politicos were the classic example.

    If this usage was widespread, maybe it helps to explain why the word has such pejorative connotations.

  4. It seems the word has serveral connotations.

    My father was Press Association journalist and entirely happy to describe himself as a hack in the same sense that you use it.

    But in stand up comedy, for example, a hack comedian is not a comedian for hire such as the mighty Barry Cryer might well be proud to be but one that comes out with obvious, stolen or clich├ęd material and thus is a perjorative description of some force.

  5. There's a difference in the way that "hack" is used in English and American in the context of writing/journalism.

    In the US it means someone whose views are for hire. Here in the UK it means a competent and adaptable professional.

    As ever, the US meaning is impinging upon the UK one.

  6. If so, it's been impinging for some time - in Joe Orton's diaries, Terence Rattigan describes himself as a hack in comparison to Orton...and that was nearly 50 years ago.