Last month, while in Boston for the PEN New England/Hemingway literary awards, I had some time to kill, so I wandered through a farmers market near my hotel. Along my way, I passed a butcher shop with the following sign:
ORDER YOUR FRESH KILLED GOAT WHOLE OR HALF
T. S. Eliot himself could not have invented a better objective correlative for how many of us who write prose feel about the literary marketplace these days. We are the goats lining up to be slaughtered by a world that seems to have moved on to Netflix and Facebook to fulfill that most basic of human needs: to hear a story.
Hey, writers, how would you like your careers to be killed today? Whole or by degrees?
The purpose of my trip was to attend a quite beautiful and inspiring award ceremony, which began with Ernest Hemingway’s son Patrick coming up to read a short selection from one of his father’s books. Listening to him, I felt as if we were briefly entering a time capsule, visiting a different era, one in which words mattered.
After we applauded for the beaming award winners, we heard a rousing keynote speech by Pulitzer-prize-winning author and journalist Geraldine Brooks extolling the power of fiction — a stirring defense of writing’s relevance in the contemporary moment.
And yet, as we writers chatted over canapés and cocktails at the reception afterward, our conversations had more than a tinge of gallows humor. We traded stories of publishers and bookstores consolidating and closing, competition for jobs growing fierce, opportunities seemingly drying up.
“How are you?” I asked a colleague, a very fine novelist.
“Fine,” he said, “except for the general depression about the state of publishing these days because no one reads anymore. Who reads anymore? I don’t even read anymore.”
The awards were held in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, a soaring white building that also houses a collection of Ernest Hemingway’s manuscripts and letters. As we writers glumly traded our war stories, I was struck by the contrast between our torpor and the vigor commonly associated with the images of John Kennedy or Ernest Hemingway. (Never mind all we know now about Kennedy’s actual ill health or Hemingway’s tragic end.)
Why does this moment feel different? Why need it feel different?
Partly because of money. For a while, there was a chance to earn a small living at this racket. Or part of a living. Today, many of us as writers are grateful to even get paid anything at all for our work. We’re grateful that anyone even reads our work.
But maybe another part of it has to do with a kind of resignation we all feel, as if the continuation of the downward trends of the past is inevitable for the future, or that if we are the only ones left who are reading and writing, that’s not enough. Maybe it is true that the world is lined up against us, marking us and our way of life for obsolescence. But as long as we are here, still reading, still writing, we are not obsolete. Our presence is proof of that.
As Stephen Sondheim once wrote, “I’m still here!”
Or as Anne Lamott once said, “The real payoff is the writing itself, that a day when you have gotten your work done is a good day, that total dedication is the point.”
So we keep on keeping on, even if for an audience that consists only of ourselves, because the struggle itself, however seemingly unfruitful according to day-to-day measures of Facebook likes or book sales or any other external measure, is worth it.