Fifty years ago, the use of the word hack to describe anyone who made a living as a journalist was practically actionable: Winston Churchill's son Randolph once took damages from a Sunday newspaper on exactly these grounds. But some of the greatest writers in the English language have been harassed penny-a-liners, goaded to the desk by the rap of a creditor's boots on the cheerless stair. Thackeray was a hack. Evelyn Waugh was a hack. Dickens began his career as a parliamentary reporter.
Orwell, of course, was the hack to end all hacks. Except at the very end of his life, when he decamped to the island of Jura to work on Nineteen Eighty-Four, scarcely a week of his adult life went by without three or four deadlines and a working routine smothered under books.
The wonder of the pieces collected in Orwell in Tribune (Politico's £19.99), his mid-1940s contributions to the left-wing literary weekly, is the conditions in which they written: composed straight onto the typewriter, in most cases, to the accompaniment of buzz-bombs and falling masonry. Like Thackeray. Orwell used journalism to rehearse ideas that would later underpin his fiction. Several of the essays and “As I Please” columns included here have a direct bearing on Nineteen Eighty-Four: reflections on artificial languages and realpolitik euphemisms such as "friendly fire", in which can be glimpsed the origins of Newspeak, or "In Front of Your Nose", written in 1946 but clearly foreshadowing the concept of Doublethink. Neatly edited by Paul Anderson, and good on the contemporary left-wing background, this deserves to sit on the same shelf as Peter Davison's monumental George Orwell: The Complete Works.
If not quite in the Orwell category of neurotic freelancers, Graham Greene ran him pretty close: a biographer once calculated that in the 1930s he reviewed more than 1,000 books, an average of two a week and a feat of drudgery well-nigh unparalleled in British letters. Naturally, much of Articles of Faith (Signal £12.99), lan Thomson's collection of Greene's work for the Catholic weekly The Tablet, is aimed at the religious market: Greene's doubts, Greene's views on Pope John Paul II, Greene wondering whether the Roman Curia doesn't remind him of the Politburo and so on. Its incidental effect, though, is to remind you what a brilliant critic of fiction Greene was, capable of using the most mundane novel to pronounce some general truth about how-books get written.
With WF Deedes, the hackery was an end in itself: the books came later, so late, in fact, that the former Daily Telegraph editor's hard-cover debut had to wait until his 84th year. Words and Deedes (Macmillan £25) — a terrible title, but never mind — goes back three quarters of a century to its author's installation as cub reporter on the famously right-wing Morning Post. As for the contents, readers of his autobiography Dear Bill, or the account of his war-corresponding days in Abyssinia with Evelyn Waugh. may note a slight air of repetition. Deedes does tend to return, like some ancient homing pigeon, to such topics as the abdication of Edward VIII, the Tory leadership stitch-up of 1963 and his admiration for the people of Tyneside. On the other hand, his trademark shrewdness is always bracing.
David Remnick (who edits The New Yorker) would, you fancy, take a Churchillian line on being called a hack. As his pieces in Reporting (Picador £ 18.99) show, he specialises in something that British magazines rarely have the space, budget or inclination to print — the long, sedulous and immensely well-researched profile, in which the reader sometimes feels that a bit too much time has been spent in the subject's company and that there are advantages in the impressionist snapshot.
Al Gore, Don DeLillo, Solzhenitsyn, Lennox Lewis (the sports pieces are especially good) come and go, the touch always unobtrusive, the cumulative effect unexpectedly pointed. Having read the account of Gore in action could see exactly why so many Americans opted for George WBush. As for the climate in which this quartet of exemplars operates, the wider point remains: some of the finest things in literature have been written against time, with the baby yelling in the next room, the gas bill staring up from the study desk, and the printer's boy — or his modem electronic equivalent — kicking his heels in the hall.