Under the pretext of reviewing two recent biographies of Samuel Johnson, whose 300th birthday we celebrate Sept. 18, Adam Kirsch eulogizes what he calls “the age of the professional writer.” It’s over. If Johnson was among its earliest exemplars, the last of his descendants are alive today and almost certainly doomed to extinction without progeny. Kirsch writes:
“For the last three centuries or so, it was possible to make a living, and a name, by writing what the public wanted to read. The novelist, the essayist, the critic, the journalist—all these literary types flourished in that historically brief window, which now appears to be closing. In the future, if fewer people are interested in reading and few of those are willing to pay for what they read, all these kinds of writers may go the way of the troubadour and the scribe.”
A confluence of economics, technology and the human drift toward intellectual entropy virtually assures the demise of a happy human efflorescence once thought permanent. My interest is more than academic. Most of my life I’ve earned my living with words, as a journalist for newspapers and a wire service, a science writer for two universities and as a freelancer. Chief among the pleasures this life affords is an ongoing ad hoc education. The lure of a paycheck compels us to hone our gifts as polymathic generalists: I’ve always been learning something, whether nanotechnology or human nature. Good writers, in my experience, tend to be autodidacts who turn necessity into some degree of professional autonomy – and a modest but livable paycheck. Kirsch writes:
“Reading about his life makes clear that Johnson's hard-won independence was something different from the much-celebrated freedom offered by the Internet, which allows any literate person a platform in the form of a Web site or blog. The democracy of the new medium is a good thing, of course, but like our democratic society itself, the Internet tends to encourage amateurism and atomization. It is hard to see how a writer like Johnson could arise in a future when writing is something done casually, in brief blog bursts in one's spare time. And it may not be long before the kind of professional confidence and expertise that Johnson cultivated over a lifetime of paid work will appear as regrettably obsolete as books and newspapers themselves.”
Amen. Kirsch’s calm, matter-of-fact tone belies the severity and bleakness of what he’s describing – the coming of a new Dark Age for literacy and literature. It wasn’t always like this, and you don’t have to range as far back as Johnson to find an inspiring example of “professional confidence and expertise” among writers. A.J. Liebling turned the products of economic necessity into literature. He moved from newspapers to The New Yorker to a series of peerless books ranging in subject matter from boxing, food and France to Southern politics and press criticism. He was also, as his biographer Raymond Sokolov says, “the leading intelligence and stylist [a critical pairing for this sort of life] covering the European theater of the war.”
The first hardcover product of his war coverage for The New Yorker was The Road Back to Paris, already stale as (pre-D-Day) hard news by the time it was published in 1944, but splendid as a collection of raffishly written chronicles of war. The book is arranged in three sections with titles drawn from boxing: “The World Knocked Down,” “The World on One Knee,” “The World Gets Up.” Near the start of the third section, written when Allied victory was likely but not certain, Liebling writes a passage oddly consonant with Kirsch’s grim prognosis:
“Millions of men meriting better than I have lived and died in humiliating periods of history. Free men and free thinking always get a return match with the forces of sadism and anti-reason sometimes. But I had wanted to see a win, I had wanted my era to be one of those that read well in the books. Some people like to live in a good neighborhood; I like to live in a good age. I am a sucker for a happy ending – the villain kicked in the teeth, the stepchildren released from the dark basement, the hero in bed with the heroine. Maybe the curtain won’t go up on the same first act tomorrow night, but I won’t be in the audience.”
Liebling’s era does “read well in the books,” several of which he wrote.