Thursday, August 14, 2003

So what's with the name?

Grubb Street is a play on my last name (natch) and the original Grub Street, one of the two "streets of ink" in London (the other being Fleet Street). The term "Grub Street" has found its way onto a couple of those "Word a Day" calenders, so without fail, someone passes the tear-off sheet from that day to me, thinking I would have never heard of it before and I would find it humorous. The definition usually reads something like this:

Grub Street \GRUB-street\, noun:
The world or category of impoverished literary hacks

Yeah, its a knee-slapper, particularly since I am not only a writer, but a writer who, since starting his craft, has toiled in the gardens of "genre fiction", and wondered if he has anything worth saying. So I picked it up as an ironic title, since most modern uses of the phrase are ironic (There is a Grub Street bookstore in Australia, a Grub Street writer's workshop in Boston, and a TV production company called Grub Street (which produces "Fraisier") - none of which, I assume, aspire to hack-dom).

Now doing some digging on Grub Street, I find that it originally outside the wall of London, near Moorfields. Originally a quarter for bowyers and fletchers, it fell on hard times with the introduction of gunpowder, and soon was a wretched hive of scum and villainy, home to bowling-alleys and dicing-houses. And, since the rents were cheap, the entertainments nearby, and the prospects of work in the growing city ever-increasing, it became the home of writers as well.

This was at a time when, with the introduction of a new technologies (the printing press, and later moveable type), along with a growing middle class that had time to do things like read, writers could get into print more easily (at least, without a patron). It was a period of literary freedom if not necessarily plenty. In this way Grub Street was a bit like the Internet. And also like the Internet, it was a bit TOO easy to get into print, with the result that a lot of questionable writing came out of Grub Street (political tracts, scandal sheets, questionable biographies, and "indecent material"). By 1700, a member of the "Grub Street Press" was about as respected and reputed for accuracy as a "Fox News Commentator", but it was popular among a good segment of the population.

Such worthies as Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and Thomas Fielding railed against the common popularity of such lower literature, to the point of founding/supporting/contributing to the Grub Street Journal, A satiric literary magazine that railed against less-worthy writers (and still less-worthy booksellers and publishers), it served to spread the Grub Street meme around, so that Grub street soon was more than a mere locality, but rather a state of mind.

But is was Samuel Johnson who immortalized Grub Street in his "A Dictionary of the English Language", noting it as "much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems, whence any mean production is called grubstreet." (The "mean" here is a matter of smallness and insignificance as opposed to any angry intent).

So the Internet, with its populist mindset and sometimes questionable content, is definitely a side-alley built from this grand old street. So too is the Grub Street the ancestor for shared world fiction, house names, the mid-list of most publishing houses, and what Ursula K. LeGuin has called "The Bologna Factory" of modern, industrial-strength fantasy, a domain where I hang my hat without remorse

Grub Street itself is gone - renamed Milton Street in the 1830's to hide its shame, and then bombed into submission by the Blitz and mostly built over since. But it remains strong in the hearts of the literary strugglers, the working writers, and the wordsmiths that toil to various ends to communicate and, on more occasions than not, to produce something worthwhile and lasting. And that's why the name.

Anyway, that's my story, and I'm sticking with it.