Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Big One

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In a heartfelt appreciation of the novelist Philip Roth, who died earlier this week, the New York Times critic Dwight Garner describes him as “the last front-rank survivor of a generation of fecund and authoritative and, yes, white and male novelists…[that] included John Updike, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow.” These four names seem fated to be linked together for as long as any of them is still read and remembered, and they’ve played varying roles in my own life. I was drawn first to Mailer, who for much of my adolescence was my ideal of what a writer should be, less because of his actual fiction than thanks to my repeated readings of the juiciest parts of Peter Manso’s oral biography. (If you squint hard and think generously, you can even see Mailer’s influence in the way I’ve tried to move between fiction and nonfiction, although in both cases it was more a question of survival.) Updike, my favorite, was a writer I discovered after college. I agree with Garner that he probably had the most “sheer talent” of them all, and he represents my current model, much more than Mailer, of an author who could apparently do anything. Bellow has circled in and out of my awareness over the years, and it’s only recently that I’ve started to figure out what he means to me, in part because of his ambiguous status as a subject of biography. And Roth was the one I knew least. I’d read Portnoy’s Complaint and one or two of the Zuckerman novels, but I always felt guilty over having never gotten around to such late masterpieces as American Pastoral—although the one that I should probably check out first these days is The Plot Against America.

Yet I’ve been thinking about Roth for about as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer, largely because he came as close as anyone ever could to having the perfect career, apart from the lack of the Nobel Prize. He won the National Book Award for his debut at the age of twenty-six; he had a huge bestseller at an age when he was properly equipped to enjoy it; and he closed out his oeuvre with a run of major novels that critics seemed to agree were among the best that he, or anyone, had ever written. (As Garner nicely puts it: “He turned on the afterburners.”) But he never seemed satisfied by his achievement, which you can take as an artist’s proper stance toward his work, a reflection of the fleeting nature of such rewards, a commentary on the inherent bitterness of the writer’s life, or all of the above. Toward the end of his career, Roth actively advised young writers not to become novelists, and in his retirement announcement, which he delivered almost casually to a French magazine, he quoted Joe Louis: “I did the best I could with what I had.” A month later, in an interview with Charles McGrath of the New York Times, he expanded on his reasoning:

I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration—it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time…I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore…I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to slave over it.

And on his computer, he posted a note that gave him strength when he looked at it each day: “The struggle with writing is over.”

Roth’s readers, of course, rarely expressed the same disillusionment, and he lives most vividly in my mind as a reference point against which other authors could measure themselves. In an interview with The Telegraph, John Updike made one of the most quietly revealing statements that I’ve ever heard from a writer, when asked if he felt that he and Roth were in competition:

Yes, I can’t help but feel it somewhat. Especially since 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. But since Bellow died I think Philip has…he’s certainly written more novels than I have, and seems more dedicated in a way to the act of writing as a means of really reshaping the world to your liking. But he’s been very good to have around as far as goading me to become a better writer.

I think about that “list of admirable novelists” all the time, and it wasn’t just a joke. In an excellent profile in The New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpoint memorably sketched in all the ways in which other writers warily circled Roth. When asked if the two of them were friends, Updike said, “Guardedly,” and Bellow seems to have initially held Roth at arm’s length, until his wife convinced him to give the younger writer a chance. Pierpont concludes of the relationship between Roth and Updike: “They were mutual admirers, wary competitors who were thrilled to have each other in the world to up their game: Picasso and Matisse.”

And they also remind me of another circle of writers whom I know somewhat better. If Bellow, Mailer, Updike, and Roth were the Big Four of the literary world, they naturally call to mind the Big Three of science fiction—Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. In each case, the group’s members were perfectly aware of how exceptional they were, and they carefully guarded their position. (Once, in a conference call with the other two authors, Asimov jokingly suggested that one of them should die to make room for their successors. Heinlein responded: “Fuck the other writers!”) Clarke and Asimov seem to have been genuinely “thrilled to have each other in the world,” but their relationship with the third point of the triangle was more fraught. Toward the end, Asimov started to “avoid” the combative Heinlein, who had a confrontation with Clarke over the Strategic Defense Initiative that effectively ended their friendship. In public, they remained cordial, but you can get a hint of their true feelings in a remarkable passage from the memoir I. Asimov:

[Clarke] and I are now widely known as the Big Two of science fiction. Until early 1988, as I’ve said, people spoke of the Big Three, but then Arthur fashioned a little human figurine of wax and with a long pin— At least, he has told me this. Perhaps he’s trying to warn me. I have made it quite plain to him, however, that if he were to find himself the Big One, he would be very lonely. At the thought of that, he was affected to the point of tears, so I think I’m safe.

As it turned out, Clarke, like Roth, outlived all the rest, and perhaps they felt lonely in the end. Longevity can amount to a kind of victory in itself. But it must be hard to be the Big One.

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