Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“The struggle with writing is over…”

with 6 comments

It goes without saying that if an ambitious young novelist could chose to have any career in American letters, it would be Philip Roth’s. Roth is unique in the history of contemporary literature in having peaked at three separate points, each time at a higher plateau than before: he was famous by his late twenties, had his first huge bestseller in his mid-thirties, and produced his most lasting string of masterpieces in his sixties. No other author in recent memory has managed to remain so relevant for so long, and these days, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it ever again, at least not at Roth’s level of productivity and prominence. It’s not surprising, then, that his withdrawal from writing would be equally unprecedented: it was disclosed so casually, in an interview in French, that it took the rest of the world more than a month to realize that an announcement had even been made. But it’s clear now that he meant it. And the prospect of an author like Roth simply walking away from the craft that he’d mastered like few other authors of his era is enough to raise questions in the mind of anyone who hopes to follow, even in the most tentative way, in his imposing footsteps.

Roth’s announcement is so striking because we simply aren’t used to the idea of a writer retiring. Eminent novelists, in general, fall into one of three predictable categories. They can continue to produce handsome new volumes on a regular basis, like Updike, even if they no longer occupy quite the same cultural position they did in their prime; they can lapse into inactivity despite a protracted struggle to write, like Capote or Ellison; or they can settle into an extended, mysterious silence, like Salinger, who evidently continued writing every day at his comfortable home in New Hampshire. Roth, by contrast, is still more than physically and intellectually capable of producing quality work, but has concluded that it’s no longer worth the effort. And he should know: year after year, Roth worked harder than any other writer of his generation, aside perhaps from Bellow, at the problem of being a major novelist, and was never sidetracked, like Mailer, by journalistic or dilettantish distractions. He wrote standing up, like a surgeon, a symphony conductor, or Walter Murch at his editing machine. And although it may seem strange that he’d choose to step away now, part of me wonders if it isn’t, in fact, a perfectly sane decision.

Writing a novel is hugely difficult, even, or especially, if you’re good at it. “I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away,” Roth said to Charles McGrath of the New York Times. “I can’t do that anymore.” He knows as well as anyone that even if you’ve written thirty novels and gotten rich and famous in the process, that’s no guarantee that you can do it again tomorrow. Writing fiction is the best job in the world for those with the necessary temperament, but it’s also solitary, frustrating, and the source of endless psychological disquiet. It’s stranger, perhaps, to persist in courting such daily punishment when you’ve already accomplished all you could ever have reasonably expected. Far healthier, and more human, to live out your remaining days in peace, without staring down a blank page, to catch up on your reading and work on your memoirs and learn how to use an iPhone. It’s liberating in a way that writing always promises, but can never quite deliver, and we can glimpse something of that liberation in the note posted to Roth’s computer: “The struggle with writing is over.”

Whether it lasts is another question entirely. As Roth has made clear in his Times interview, he has plenty of other projects in the meantime: he’s collaborating on a novella with a former girlfriend’s eight-year-old daughter, and is writing up voluminous notes for Blake Bailey, his biographer, even if Bailey admits that he won’t be able to get through them all for years. If writing a novel is hard labor, these are the literary equivalents of play, and I’d like to see Roth pursue them with joy and serenity—which may be his last great experiment. Every writer, I suspect, secretly hopes that one day he’ll write the one perfect, definitive novel that will finally allow him to rest. Most of us eventually conclude that it isn’t going to happen: we’re too used to striving, and too critical of all we’ve done in the past, to be content with what we’ve accomplished. But for the sake of those of us who still dream, irrationally, that some measure of peace and tranquillity will be there for us in the end, I really hope that Roth does it. Even if it only took him half a century to get there.

Written by nevalalee

November 19, 2012 at 9:50 am

6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. The statement that we aren’t used to the idea of a writer retiring reminded me of Barthes essay about an author going on vacation. It seems that we still think about writers in a mythologizing way. Maybe literature published on the Internet, poetry slams etc. will teach us that literature is “made” by human beings?
    Anyway, I’m glad to discover your blog.


    November 19, 2012 at 1:36 pm

  2. Glad you liked it! It occurs to me that there’s one other famous example of an author who retired: Shakespeare, who apparently spent the last three years of his life doing nothing quite happily at Stratford-Upon-Avon…

    Hope to see you around!


    November 19, 2012 at 9:52 pm

  3. Alec — Roth describes himself now as working for his biographer? Well, that explains the recent Wikipedia tiff; although I’ve never had any interest in reading Roth’s work, I am glad to hear something more positive about him this year.

    I can tell you have a much rosier view of him — no doubt deserving — so I’ll also mention that the arrangement with Bailey reminds me of the only-just-being-fully-released full edition of Twain’s autobiography. But would Roth have the strength to sequester his truth until no one living could feel them?


    November 29, 2012 at 7:41 pm

  4. Personally, I love what Roth did with Wikipedia. It’s nice to be able to publish something on the New Yorker blog just to give the editors of your page something to cite!


    December 1, 2012 at 4:56 pm

  5. Sure, it’s nice from the writer’s perspective to have that kind of access to world-known publications, but I’m surprised that you’d love anyone exploiting that kind of access to harangue –and inaccurately malign — a non-profit organization whose interface he happens not to like.

    The documented facts are that the Wikipedia page was quite accurate when Roth first looked at it, reporting (a) that critics had speculated on an inspiration from Broyard’s life and (b) that Roth had denied the connection, and giving sources for both statements.

    The parts of Roth’s Open Letter actually about Tumin, and Broyard, and Roth himself, are lovely and well worth citing. But it’s just not good citizenship — and wouldn’t be good business if the author were anyone who still cared about publicity on his merits (rather than his own coattails) — to package such reminiscences in an attack on Wikipedia, which then goes viral on the strength of schadenfreude alone.


    December 3, 2012 at 10:25 am

  6. That’s a good point, and on rereading Roth’s letter, it seems more vituperative, unfairly, against Wikipedia than I’d remembered. But the funny thing is that the power dynamic here is actually reversed: these days, Wikipedia is more powerful than Roth himself, at least in terms of shaping mass opinion about his work, so I can’t really blame him for reacting the way he did.


    December 3, 2012 at 10:52 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: