The future of writing in America—or, at least, the future of making a living by writing—seems in doubt as rarely before. Thanks to the Internet, the disproportion between writerly supply and demand, always tricky, has tipped: anyone can write, and everyone does, and beginners are expected to be the last pure philanthropists, giving it all away for the naches. It has never been easier to be a writer; and it has never been harder to be a professional writer.

Adam Gopnik. Is this true? How hard was it to be a professional writer in 1713? 1813? 1863? 1913? 1963?

Seriously, I wish people would stop saying stuff like this without thinking about it first. Start by defining “professional writer”: since this is a blog post about Philip Roth, are you thinking only of “literary” writers? There are several other kinds of writers who make a living by writing words. And then ask yourself: how many people made a living by words in any of the years I just listed? What percentage of the population did they amount to? How does that percentage compare to today’s? There were no bloggers in 1963, but there were probably more people paying the rent by writing screenplays, because Hollywood made more movies then than it makes today, though not as many as it had made in 1943 — so how do those numbers compare?

Of course, we don’t know the answers to any of these questions, nor do we know how to get the answers. Anything we say comparing the lot of the writer today to some (any) period in the past is largely hot air.