A plaque outside of Charles Dickens's former home on Doughty Street in London, now the Charles Dickens Museum. Dickens formed extensive networks in London journalism and the theater as he established himself as a novelist. Toby Melville/Reuters

A new study finds that British and Irish writers clustered in 18th- and 19th-century London and were more productive as a result.

Clustering is the driving force of today’s post-industrial economy, evident in the cramming and jamming of techies in the Bay Area, media types in Los Angeles, and finance workers in New York City.

Even these knowledge-based industries require large institutions of some kind to root them in place. Tech hubs grow around great universities, companies such as Google or Amazon, and abundant venture capital. Hollywood has its major studios and filmmaking complexes. New York has the big banks and financial firms of Wall Street.

But what about writers? Authors don’t need to be close to labs or giant industrial complexes; they don’t need venture capital. All they strictly need are pens, paper, and now laptops. Because of this, the writer is a useful fruit fly, allowing us to examine the clustering of creative people and industries.

We tend to picture famous literary figures as lone geniuses, churning out their work in solitude, like Emily Dickinson. But a new study that is forthcoming in the Journal of Urban Economics finds evidence of clustering of writers in 18th- and 19th-century London, a period well before the onset of today’s knowledge and creative economy. The study is based on a data set built by its author, economist Sara Mitchell; the set includes 370 authors who were born in the United Kingdom and Ireland between 1700 and 1925.

Mitchell defines an author as someone who has made at least one contribution to poetry or prose, excluding translations, textbooks, manuals, and the like. Based on three online encyclopedias, her database includes information on each author’s lifespan, age at first publication, number of publications per year, lifetime publications, career duration, gender, and place of residence each year.

The study finds concentration and clustering of writers in London well before the rise of the modern creative class. Between 1800 and 1900, London was home to between 40 and 50 percent of all U.K. writers, despite accounting for between 10 and 20 percent of the total population. Eight in ten of the authors lived there for at least a time, with the average author living there for nearly two decades of their writing career. Only 71 out of 370 authors never lived in London.

It also appears that belonging to the London cluster made writers substantially more productive. Mitchell finds that the average writer in London saw their productivity go up by 12 percent. By comparison, writers in smaller clusters, in Dublin, Edinburgh, Oxford, and Cambridge, saw no such gains. Furthermore, being part of the London cluster increased the likelihood of an author having their work published in any given year by 24 percent.

The productivity gains weren’t simply the result of the most prolific writers tending to move to London. Mitchell compared writers’ productivity before and after they moved there. She wanted to find out whether the authors who relocated to London were already on the rise, or if the London cluster was indeed a factor in their improved output. What she found is that authors’ productivity improved significantly in the first three years after they moved to London, compared to their previous five years living elsewhere—even if they had been churning out work at a good pace. Mitchell writes:   

Due to the geographic concentration of creative industries, authors in London likely had access to stronger and more advantageous social networks, in terms of increased connections with their peers (other authors), individuals with influence within the publishing industry (agents, publishers, critics), and those who are a part of the intellectual and cultural elite (artists, musicians, wealthy patrons). Authors in London also could have taken advantage of the related economic infrastructure and gained from the resulting economies of scale, allowing for a more efficient transformation of ideas into physical book-form.

An example of this kind of network (which literary scholars might call a coterie) was the Bloomsbury Group, whose members included Virginia Woolf, her painter sister Vanessa Bell, biographer Lytton Strachey, and economist John Maynard Keynes.

Who’s afraid of a creative cluster? Not Virginia Woolf, a member of London’s Bloomsbury Group. (AP)

Interestingly, the data show the power of the London cluster beginning to peter out a bit by the early 20th century, with its share of writers declining to roughly 25 percent. This occurred without any shift of writers to other clusters in the U.K. Mitchell speculates that this could have been due to writers fleeing from or fighting in the world wars, or migrating to global creative centers outside the U.K., like Paris and New York.

The study reminds us that it is not just the creative people of our own era who form clusters: They have clustered all along. They do so not necessarily to be close to large institutions or infrastructure, but to realize the productivity gains that come from being close to one another. What is different today is simply that more and more of us do creative work of one sort of another.

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