Honor among writers
Writers, by nature, are highly competitive. In principle, writing isn’t a contest, but it certainly feels like one, and in practical terms, you find yourself competing with other contemporary writers for all sorts of things that seem available only in finite amounts: attention from editors, book sales, awards, an intangible sense of where you rank in the literary pecking order. Near the top, among the handful of great novelists in any generation, the sense of being a member of a tiny club—in which the old guard is periodically pushed out to make room for the new—can turn into a weird kind of office politics. And don’t think that the authors themselves aren’t acutely conscious of where they stand. Shortly before his death, John Updike, speaking of Philip Roth, said this to the Telegraph:
Philip really has the upper hand in the rivalry, as far as I can tell…I think in a list of admirable novelists there was a time when I might have been near the top, just tucked under Bellow.
It’s an illuminating glimpse of what Updike thought of Roth, but I also like that offhand reference to a “list of admirable novelists,” to which Updike seems to have devoted a fair amount of thought.
I found this quote in Claudia Roth Pierpont’s recent piece in The New Yorker about the friendships between Roth and his contemporaries, including Bellow, Updike, and others, with material drawn from her acclaimed new Roth biography. (At this point, Pierpont might as well legally change her name to “Claudia Roth Pierpoint, no relation.”) The picture we get from the profile is that of a circle of astoundingly talented writers who were pleased to have rivals worthy of their time, but who weren’t always entirely comfortable in one another’s company. You get a sense what it must have been like for two ambitious writers of the same age—Updike was “a year and a day” older than Roth—to rub elbows from Roth’s description of Updike’s “leaping, kangaroo-like energy” as a younger man, followed at once by the wry observation: “I was not un-kangaroo-like myself.” It’s hard for two kangaroos to share a room, especially at a New York dinner party, and for all their mutual admiration, there was also an underlying wariness. Roth referred to the two of them as “friends at a distance,” and when asked by the Telegraph if he and Roth were friends, Updike responded: “Guardedly.”
Much the same went for Roth and Saul Bellow, at least in the early days. Ultimately, their acquaintance blossomed into a lasting friendship, but Bellow seems to have initially held the younger writer—eighteen years his junior—at arm’s length. Harold Bloom has famously written of the anxiety of influence, that almost Oedipal ambivalence with which artists regard the predecessors whom they admire and long to imitate, and when two authors are alive at the same time, it runs both ways: a literary mentorship often has less in common with Finding Forrester than with All About Eve. In time, Bellow warmed up to Roth, thanks in part to the influence of his wife, Janis Freedman Bellow, whom Roth imagines saying: “What’s the matter, this guy really likes you, he really admires you, he wants to be your friend.” Freedman Bellow demurs: “I had that conciliatory gene. But it’s not like I was kicking him under the table.” (Bellow’s guardedness toward Roth reminds me a little of how Maxim Gorky described Tolstoy and another rival: “Two bears in one den.” In Tolstoy’s case, the rival was God.)
Yet this kind of rivalry is essential for the cause of art, since it forces the writers themselves to operate at a higher level. Pierpont compares Roth and Updike, fruitfully, to Picasso and Matisse, “wary competitors who were thrilled to have each other in the world to up their game,” and it’s a feeling to which many authors can relate. In his essay “Some Children of the Goddess,” Norman Mailer memorably recalls his feelings about James Jones, one of the few novelists he seemed willing to consider as a peer, and the failure of Jones’s novel Some Came Running:
I was in the doldrums, I needed a charge of dynamite. If Some Came Running had turned out to be the best novel any of us had written since the war, I would have had to get to work. It would have meant the Bitch was in love with someone else, and I would have had to try to win her back.
Artistic rivalry can be murder on the writers themselves—Updike and Roth eventually had a disagreement that led them to break off contact for the last ten years of Updike’s life—but it’s undeniably good for readers, even if the immediate result is what Bellow himself once observed: “Writers seldom wish other writers well.”