Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown, guest-posting at Charlie’s Diary, discuss a thoroughly awful man of letters:
Like now, there were ripoff booksellers masquerading among the legitimate ones, though today’s scammers (see Writer Beware) are rarely as colorful as the rascally Edmund Curll — printer, pirate, and pornographer. He stole material with flagrant disregard for copyright. As soon as some prominent person died, he collected gossip — it didn’t matter if it was true — for a biography, and if he didn’t have enough material, he made it up. Prominent people reportedly dreaded dying because of what Curll would do to them. A faint echo of the Curll treatment occurred a couple weeks ago, when Colleen McCullough’s obit started off by noting how fat and unlovely she’d been.
Curll churned out so much X-rated stuff under various guises that the word ‘Curlicism’ became synonymous with porn. Prison, a stint in the stocks, even being blanket-tossed and beaten by the boys at Westminster school not only didn’t stop him from theft and libel, he turned them all into marketing opportunities. Even when he was convicted of libel and forced to publish an apology and a promise to stop printing, his repentant words touted his latest books.
He’s best known for the twenty-year running duel with the poet Alexander Pope, from whom he not only stole, he lampooned under his own name and with sockpuppets. It began when he first pirated Pope, prompting the poet and his publisher to meet Curll at the Swan, where they slipped a mega dose of “physic” (think ExLax) into his drink. He turned that, too, into a marketing event, once he’d recovered from the extremes of ejecta; when Pope published a couple of triumphant pamphlets, claiming Curll was dead, Curl came right back with new material demonstrating that he was very much alive and up to his usual racket.
Their history — and there are other equally crazy-ass stories — remind me of the whoops and hollers of internet feuds and FAILS now, among writers, editors, publishers (some individuals wearing all three hats).
Aside from the Curlls, most booksellers, the publishers of the eighteenth century — like the editors working at traditional publishers now — were hardworking people who made careful decisions about what to publish because they were the ones fronting the costs of printing and of copyright.
The booksellers of Grub Street were all about copyright. For most of the eighteenth century, they met yearly, over sumptuous dinners, to hold a copyright auction that was exclusive to the booksellers. Interlopers were unceremonious chucked out.