Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Philip Roth

The gigantic problem

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I don’t really have other interests. My interest is in solving the problems presented by writing a book. That’s what stops my brain spinning like a car wheel in the snow, obsessing about nothing. Some people do crossword puzzles to satisfy their need to keep the mind engaged. For me, the absolutely demanding mental test is the desire to get the work right. The crude cliché is that the writer is solving the problem of his life in his books. Not at all. What he’s doing is taking something that interests him in life and then solving the problem of the book—which is, How do you write about this? The engagement is with the problem that the book raises, not with the problems you borrow from living. Those aren’t solved, they are forgotten in the gigantic problem of finding a way of writing about them.

Philip Roth, quoted in Risky Business by Al Alvarez

Written by nevalalee

April 11, 2021 at 8:37 pm

Out of the silence

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Eight years ago, I wrote in one of my very first posts on this blog: “I still hope that [Thomas] Harris comes back and writes another amazing novel. I really do. Even Hannibal, for all its problems, has remarkable moments…All the same, it’s been four years since we saw a new book from Harris, a notoriously slow and methodical writer, and there hasn’t been a whisper of another project. And the pressure to write another Hannibal Lecter novel must be tremendous. But I hope he resists it. Because an ambitious new thriller by Harris without Lecter would be the literary event of the year, maybe the decade.” Looking back, this seems slightly hyperbolical, but I stand by my statement. There was a time when I would have argued that Harris was the best popular novelist in America, based on a remarkably modest body of work. He’s written just five novels, one of which is best forgotten, and his most recent effort of any value is nearly two decades old. Yet between Black Sunday, Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and the most worthwhile parts of Hannibal alone, he’s responsible for more memorable ideas, scenes, and characters than any other bestselling writer I can name, apart perhaps from his longtime admirer Stephen King. No author in my lifetime has done more to break down the barriers between literary and mainstream fiction, based on little more than a dark imagination and an unsurpassed level of technical proficiency. During the years when I was working mostly as a suspense novelist, I read his novels endlessly, and it’s possible that I owe more to his example than to any other writer in any genre.

As a result, I greeted yesterday’s announcement of a new Harris novel, which is scheduled to be released the week before my next birthday, with more than usual excitement. The title and even the basic premise have yet to be revealed, a lack of information reflected in the most comprehensive article that we have on it so far, in the form of a paragraph from the Associated Press:

The Silence of the Lambs author Thomas Harris has a new novel out in May, his first in more than a decade. But don’t expect a return for Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Grand Central Publishing announced Wednesday that Harris will release his first “stand-alone thriller” since his debut, Black Sunday, in 1975. No other details were provided, although the publisher confirmed to the Associated Press that Lecter wasn’t in it. Harris, 78, has released just five previous novels. Four of them feature the flesh-eating Lecter, including The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon.

There isn’t much there, apart from the confirmation that Lecter won’t be involved, which is newsworthy in itself. Lecter is one of the great creations in all of popular fiction—perhaps the most indelible since Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, though, he eventually became a millstone around his creator’s neck. Harris has spent the last half of his career in a losing battle to reconcile Lecter’s star status with the uncompromising version of the character that had been established in the first two novels. It all but destroyed his gifts as a reporter and observer, since the later books were built around what he must have known was a lie. And the prospect of his emancipation is very exciting.

But what really struck me about that article is the realization, which I could have figured out for myself if I had bothered to do the math, that Harris is seventy-eight years old. That’s just one year younger than Philip Roth was when he announced his retirement. These two writers are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, but they have affinities that aren’t entirely obvious. They’re roughly of the same generation, with preternatural abilities of observation and description, and both saw writing as a sort of torture. Stephen King has written of Harris “writhing on the floor in agonies of frustration,” since “the very act of writing is a kind of torment,” and while Roth was more prolific, he found the act of creation to be comparably grueling, as he once told The Paris Review:

Beginning a book is unpleasant…I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive. Okay, I say to myself, that’s your beginning, start there; that’s the first paragraph of the book. I’ll go over the first six months of work and underline in red a paragraph, a sentence, sometimes no more than a phrase, that has some life in it, and then I’ll type all these out on one page. Usually it doesn’t come to more than one page, but if I’m lucky, that’s the start of page one. I look for the liveliness to set the tone. After the awful beginning come the months of freewheeling play, and after the play come the crises, turning against your material and hating the book.

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

Few writers remain productive toward the end of their eighth decade, and those who do, like John Updike, are usually those for whom it was easier to keep writing than to stop. If Harris found it painful in his forties, it can hardly be any less agonizing now, and the burden of expectation must be very great. We don’t know what inspired him to return to fiction after all this time, but I can venture a few guesses. Harris signed a lucrative contract over a decade ago, and he might have felt a sense of obligation to fulfill it, although both he and his publisher can live quite comfortably off his backlist. I once guessed that after he outsourced his most famous creation to Bryan Fuller, he’d feel free to write a book of his own, which might be part of the answer. But the best clue of all, perhaps, comes straight from Lecter himself, who advises Clarice Starling to consult Marcus Aurelius in her search for Buffalo Bill:

When you show the odd flash of contextual intelligence, I forget your generation can’t read, Clarice. The Emperor counsels simplicity. First principles. Of each particular thing, ask: What is in it in itself, in its own constitution? What is its causal nature?

When Starling, not unreasonably, asks him to cut to the chase, Lecter rewords the question: “What does he do, the man you want?” And while we know less about Harris than just about any other novelist alive, including Thomas Pynchon, we know exactly what he does. He writes, often brilliantly, and so much of what clouded his talent—Lecter’s seduction of Starling, the revisionist fanfic of Hannibal Rising—was merely, as Lecter might say, “incidental.” And I hope we’ll have one more chance to see his true nature again.

Written by nevalalee

October 4, 2018 at 8:29 am

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.

Thinking on your feet

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The director Elia Kazan, whose credits included A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, was proud of his legs. In his memoirs, which the editor Robert Gottlieb calls “the most gripping and revealing book I know about the theater and Hollywood,” Kazan writes of his childhood:

Everything I wanted most I would have to obtain secretly. I learned to conceal my feelings and to work to fulfill them surreptitiously…What I wanted most I’d have to take—quietly and quickly—from others. Not a logical step, but I made it at a leap. I learned to mask my desires, hide my truest feeling; I trained myself to live in deprivation, in silence, never complaining, never begging, in isolation, without expecting kindness or favors or even good luck…I worked waxing floors—forty cents an hour. I worked at a small truck farm across the road—fifty cents an hour. I caddied every afternoon I could at the Wykagyl Country Club, carrying the bags of middle-aged women in long woolen skirts—a dollar a round. I spent nothing. I didn’t take trolleys; I walked. Everywhere. I have strong leg muscles from that time.

The italics are mine, but Kazan emphasized his legs often enough on his own. In an address that he delivered at a retrospective at Wesleyan University in 1973, long after his career had peaked, he told the audience: “Ask me how with all that knowledge and all that wisdom, and all that training and all those capabilities, including the strong legs of a major league outfielder, how did I manage to mess up some of the films I’ve directed so badly?”

As he grew older, Kazan’s feelings about his legs became inseparable from his thoughts on his own physical decline. In an essay titled “The Pleasures of Directing,” which, like the address quoted above, can be found in the excellent book Kazan on Directing, Kazan observes sadly: “They’ve all said it. ‘Directing is a young man’s game.’ And time passing proves them right.” He continues:

What goes first? With an athlete, the legs go first. A director stands all day, even when he’s provided with chairs, jeeps, and limos. He walks over to an actor, stands alongside and talks to him; with a star he may kneel at the side of the chair where his treasure sits. The legs do get weary. Mine have. I didn’t think it would happen because I’ve taken care of my body, always exercised. But I suddenly found I don’t want to play singles. Doubles, okay. I stand at the net when my partner serves, and I don’t have to cover as much ground. But even at that…

I notice also that I want a shorter game—that is to say also, shorter workdays, which is the point. In conventional directing, the time of day when the director has to be most able, most prepared to push the actors hard and get what he needs, usually the close-ups of the so-called “master scene,” is in the afternoon. A director can’t afford to be tired in the late afternoon. That is also the time—after the thoughtful quiet of lunch—when he must correct what has not gone well in the morning. He better be prepared, he better be good.

As far as artistic advice goes, this is as close to the real thing as it gets. But it can only occur to an artist who can no longer take for granted the energy on which he has unthinkingly relied for most of his life.

Kazan isn’t the only player in the film industry to draw a connection between physical strength—or at least stamina—and the medium’s artistic demands. Guy Hamilton, who directed Goldfinger, once said: “To be a director, all you need is a hide like a rhinoceros—and strong legs, and the ability to think on your feet…Talent is something else.” None other than Christopher Nolan believes so much in the importance of standing that he’s institutionalized it on his film sets, as Mark Rylance recently told The Independent: “He does things like he doesn’t like having chairs on set for actors or bottles of water, he’s very particular…[It] keeps you on your toes, literally.” Walter Murch, meanwhile, noted that a film editor needed “a strong back and arms” to lug around reels of celluloid, which is less of a concern in the days of digital editing, but still worth bearing in mind. Murch famously likes to stand while editing, like a surgeon in the operating room:

Editing is sort of a strange combination of being a brain surgeon and a short-order cook. You’ll never see those guys sitting down on the job. The more you engage your entire body in the process of editing, the better and more balletic the flow of images will be. I might be sitting when I’m reviewing material, but when I’m choosing the point to cut out of a shot, I will always jump out of the chair. A gunfighter will always stand, because it’s the fastest, most accurate way to get to his gun. Imagine High Noon with Gary Cooper sitting in a chair. I feel the fastest, most accurate way to choose the critically important frame I will cut out of a shot is to be standing. I have kind of a gunfighter’s stance.

And as Murch suggests, this applies as much to solitary craftsmen as it does to the social and physical world of the director. Philip Roth, who worked at a lectern, claimed that he paced half a mile for every page that he wrote, while the mathematician Robert P. Langlands reflected: “[My] many hours of physical effort as a youth also meant that my body, never frail but also initially not particularly strong, has lasted much longer than a sedentary occupation might have otherwise permitted.” Standing and walking can be a proxy for mental and moral acuity, as Bertrand Russell implied so memorably:

Our mental makeup is suited to a life of very severe physical labor. I used, when I was younger, to take my holidays walking. I would cover twenty-five miles a day, and when the evening came I had no need of anything to keep me from boredom, since the delight of sitting amply sufficed. But modern life cannot be conducted on these physically strenuous principles. A great deal of work is sedentary, and most manual work exercises only a few specialized muscles. When crowds assemble in Trafalgar Square to cheer to the echo an announcement that the government has decided to have them killed, they would not do so if they had all walked twenty-five miles that day.

Such energy, as Kazan reminds us, isn’t limitless. I still think of myself as relatively young, but I don’t have the raw mental or physical resources that I did fifteen years ago, and I’ve had to come up with various tricks—what a pickup basketball player might call “old-man shit”—to maintain my old levels of productivity. I’ve written elsewhere that certain kinds of thinking are best done sitting down, but there’s also a case to be made for thinking on your feet. Standing is the original power pose, and perhaps the only one likely to have any real effects. And it’s in the late afternoons, both of a working day and of an entire life, that you need to stand and deliver.

The Monroe Doctrine

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[His] secret ambition, after all, had been to steal Marilyn; in all his vanity he thought no one was so well suited to bring out the best in her as himself.

—Norman Mailer, Marilyn

Are writers in direct competition? Any reasonable person—who, by definition, probably isn’t a writer—would have to conclude that they aren’t. The road to publication can be brutal, and there are plenty of ways in which it punishes or ignores deserving talent, but the existence of a specific rival who is consuming resources that might otherwise be allocated to you probably isn’t one of them. Any barriers to entry or success have more to do with luck, timing, and other impersonal forces than with peers who are trying to do the same thing as you. Even prizes, teaching positions, or fellowships are less about writers competing with one another than about their separate confrontations with larger systems, in which the only sustainable solution is to work together. And critical rankings can be rightly dismissed as irrelevancies, or, at best, the byproducts of a different game with incentives of its own. As the novelist and critic Wilfrid Sheed wrote:

When a reviewer says that Malamud is second only to Bellow, it means he really isn’t thinking about either of them. When he’s reading Malamud he’s thinking about Bellow, and when he’s reading Bellow he’s thinking about Roth. This is the essence of the ratings game: distraction. Children play it all the time. “Is this the biggest bridge in the world?” “No, it’s the third biggest.” “Oh.” They lose all interest in the bridge.

But you could also argue that writers are effectively in competition, if only because nearly all the authors who have ever lived have behaved as if they were. When asked by an interviewer from the Telegraph if he thought of himself and Philip Roth as rivals, John Updike replied:

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.

Saul Bellow himself wrote, “Writers seldom wish other writers well,” while Gore Vidal was even more blunt: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Elsewhere, I’ve written at length about why novelists seem particularly susceptible to what I’ve called the Colonel Cathcart complex, after the character in Catch-22 of whom Joseph Heller says: “He could measure his own progress only in relationship to others, and his idea of excellence was to do something at least as well as all the other men his own age who were doing the same thing even better.” And you could make the case that this kind of competition is good for literature as a whole, as Norman Mailer observed to The Paris Review, after noting that writers were as competitive “as star athletes”: “You say, Well, if he’s doing it, I can do it.”

But there’s another factor at work here. The most memorable consideration of literary envy I’ve ever read is Mailer’s essay “Some Children of the Goddess,” which I first encountered as a young teenager and practically memorized. Mailer speaks frankly of his competitiveness with James Jones and William Styron, as well as his uneasy sense of relief when their novels Some Came Running and Set This House On Fire turned out to be artistic nonevents. But here’s the language that he uses when he describes their relationship to the muse, or, as he calls her, the Bitch:

If Some Came Running had turned out to be the best novel any of us had written since the war…it would have meant the Bitch was in love with someone else, I would have had to try to win her back. But the failure of Some Came Running left me holding onto a buttock of the lady—if she had many lovers, I was still one of them…[While reading Set This House On Fire] I would think, “You don’t catch the Bitch that way, buster, you got to bring more than a trombone to her boudoir.”

In Mailer’s imagination, the muse seems to have taken the form of Marilyn Monroe, whom he secretly felt he might have married if Arthur Miller hadn’t gotten there first. Monroe was the ultimate unrenewable resource, and an emblem of the prize to be won. Which raises the question of how, exactly, Mailer imagined how such a rivalry might look to a writer who happened to be a woman—although it doesn’t even seem to have occurred to him that this might be a problem. He spends the rest of his essay discussing ten contemporary novels, from Henderson the Rain King to Franny and Zooey, in an attempt to figure out the pecking order. All were written by men. And it’s open to debate if Mailer even thought that women were playing the same game.

It’s hard not to connect this kind of exclusion to the conception of literature as an economic activity defined by a scarcity of resources, or, if you like, as a contest between suitors. One of the worst manifestations of this sort of competitiveness, in art as in life, is the disqualification of potential competitors who don’t look like you, which winnows the field to the benefit of those who are already on the inside. Assuming that the pool of rewards is finite, it’s rational to limit your chosen rivals to people who fit the right profile, even if it results in a twisted Monroe Doctrine—James, not Marilyn—in which any incursion is seen as an act of hostility. If any outsiders break in, you can claim that they benefited from an unfair advantage, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, or you can pick up your toys and go home. We’ve seen this clearly in the Hugo Awards, but it isn’t unique to science fiction, which just happens to be a place where a structural weakness allowed these impulses to become visible. Over the last few years, we’ve repeatedly seen how psychological or economic insecurity on the individual level can turn to resentment of otherness on a mass scale, and writers are no different than anyone else. (If anything, they’re worse, because their insecurity is universal, and they get to set the rules of the game they’re playing. Among other things, it leads to the curious belief that newcomers need to justify their presence, when by any rational standard it should be the other way around.) Every writer ends up assembling his or her private list of rivals, and if this excludes some while including others, we can excuse this as a necessary survival mechanism in a profession that needs all the help it can get. But it’s a different matter in public. There’s no honor in winning, or even in competing in, a game that won’t accept all players. And if you don’t agree, you’ll inevitably find that you’ve been your own worst enemy all along.

The downhill racer

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James Salter

Fame was not only part of greatness, it was more. It was the evidence, the only proof. All the rest was nothing, in vain.

—James Salter, Light Years

Last week, the novelist James Salter died at the age of ninety. Many of us were introduced—or reintroduced—to Salter a couple of years ago, when a New Yorker profile by Nick Paumgarten coincided with the release of what turned out to be his final book. The piece had the effect of definitively canonizing Salter in an odd but accustomed position: the most famous unknown novelist in America. By then, the story had long since taken shape of Salter as a writer who was the equal, at his best, of Roth or Updike, with just as much critical support and acclaim over five decades, but a fraction of the sales and celebrity. As a result, he became not just a writer but a kind of mirror in which other frustrated novelists, published or otherwise, could see themselves, as well as an object lesson in the fickle relationship between fame and talent. And if Salter or his fans hoped that the profile would finally grant him the cultural prominence he deserved, they were doomed to be disappointed, in characteristic fashion, in as classy a way as possible: his last novel showed up for exactly one week on the New York Times bestseller list. It was an ending that Salter might have written for himself, although clearly not the one he wanted, and it confirmed him as our great master of doing so very much, but not nearly enough.

I was intrigued enough by the profile to pick up a copy of A Sport and a Pastime, generally considered to be Salter’s best work. And it’s a novel I wish I’d read much earlier. (About halfway through, I realized that I’d been familiar with parts of it for most of my life, through the excerpts that John Irving includes in A Son of the Circus, although I’d never made the connection before.) It covers some of the same thematic and cultural ground as Tropic of Cancer, a novel I’ve tried and failed to love, and I think it’s ultimately the better book—or at least the one that fits more snugly with my own tastes in fiction. It’s detached, precise, and a little chilly, but it also contains a higher percentage of genuine smut than any other good novel I can name. Much of it feels like a novel written for other writers. The prose isn’t showy, but it’s so obsessively polished that every paragraph comes off as a miniature textbook of craft, and although the author keeps himself at a deliberate remove, it’s constantly alive with his intelligence and skill. If I were going to recommend half a dozen novels for an aspiring writer to study closely, it would probably be among them: it’s the kind of book you keep at your elbow, as I’ve recently done, while working over your own material, both as a reference point and as a reminder of all that writing can be.

A Sport and a Pastime

But what complicates the narrative of Salter as a literary bridesmaid, never a bride, is that his life was almost indescribably rich. He went to high school at Horace Mann with Jack Kerouac, attended West Point, and flew planes in the Korean War. His first novel, The Hunters, was optioned for a considerable sum—close to half a million in today’s dollars—and made into a film starring Robert Mitchum. A short documentary he made won a prize at the Venice Film Festival almost by accident. His next script was directed by Sidney Lumet, and Salter himself directed a movie featuring Sam Waterston and Charlotte Rampling. Later, he fell in with Robert Redford, for whom he wrote Downhill Racer. Along the way, he produced a handful of great novels, a lot of short fiction, and some poetry. He was close friends with Saul Bellow before tiring of being a “wingman.” He had five children with two different wives. By all accounts, he was handsome and athletic, an accomplished skier, climber, and tennis player. His novels never sold particularly well, but they attracted high praise from the readers who mattered most. Of A Sport and a Pastime, Reynolds Price said: “It’s as nearly perfect as any American fiction I know.” But real fame, and the big literary prizes, remained out of reach, and Salter seems to have seen much of his life as a waste of time and potential.

We’re left, then, with the question of whether fame is truly the sole proof of greatness, and why a writer of such enormous accomplishments could only see the places where he fell short. (Even his admirers encouraged him in this. Speaking of Salter’s movie career, Paumgarten says without comment: “Of sixteen screenplays, only four were produced.” Any screenwriter will tell you that this is a fantastic percentage.) But he wasn’t alone. If you were going to plan out the perfect writing career from first principles—a big critical success right out of the gate, a huge bestseller at your peak, and a series of late masterpieces—you couldn’t do better than Philip Roth, and I’ve written at length elsewhere about Roth’s own disillusionment. Which only raises the larger issue of whether any ambitious writer can truly be happy. Part of it can be pinned on the neuroses that drive so many writers into the lives they’ve chosen, but not all of it is imaginary. Those of us on the outside only see the published work, but a writer is uniquely qualified to measure them against the books that were never written, and none of us ever lives up to his or her full potential. In Salter’s case, that infinitesimal gap feels especially stark: he came so close to being the best that his final, tiny shortfall feels like a failure. He can start to sound a little like LeBron James after the finals: “If I could have gave more, I would have done it, but I gave everything I had.” Salter gave even more than that, and he didn’t think it was enough. But that doesn’t mean he was right.

Written by nevalalee

June 24, 2015 at 9:51 am

Exorcising the ghosts

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George Saunders

Over the weekend, The New York Times Style Magazine ran a fascinating series of short pieces by writers confronting their own early work. (The occasion for the feature is an auction being held at Christie’s next month by PEN American Center, in which seventy-five first editions with annotations by their authors will go up for sale. If I could get just one, it would be David Simon’s copy of Homicide.) The reflections here are full of intriguing insights, one of which I quoted here on Sunday. There’s Philip Roth’s description of the analytic session in Portnoy’s Complaint as “an appropriate vessel” for the kind of uncensored, frequently repellent story he wanted to write—a nice reminder of how a novel’s most distinctive qualities often represent a solution to particular narrative problems. I also liked George Saunders’s account of revisiting his first collection of short stories, which is full of “ghost-phrases” that he was positive were there, but must have been cut along the way. The version of a story that a writer carries in his or her head is an amalgam of variations, with each draft superimposed over the one before, and it sometimes bears little resemblance to what finally ended up in print.

But the comment that stuck with me the most was from Lydia Davis, who writes tightly compressed, elliptical short stories, some of them only a paragraph long. (I’ve only read a few of them, but they’re extraordinary—worthy contributions to a tradition of parables that goes back through Borges and Kafka. Of all contemporary writers whose work I feel I need to study more closely, Davis is near the top, largely because her virtues are so different from mine.) Appropriately enough, her contribution isn’t much longer than most of the stories that inspired it, but it’s been rattling around in my head ever since:

I read a story through again and again, whether it’s a long story or a short one (or a very very short one). If anything bothers me, even very subtly, I reread it many times, consider alternatives, put the story away for a while, read it again. I don’t consider a story finished until nothing bothers me anymore—though there are a few stories that never completely satisfied me but that I felt were good enough to go out in the world as they were. I simply couldn’t think what more I could do to them.

Lydia Davis

And the line that really gets me is “until nothing bothers me anymore.” On some level, that’s the only standard to which writers ought to hold themselves, as John Gardner notes in The Art of Fiction: “When the amateur writer lets a bad sentence stand in his final draft, though he knows it’s bad, the sin is frigidity.” The trouble, of course, is that revising a story is like trying to catch a trout with your bare hands. Whenever you think you’ve got a grip on it, it slips through, and one change can set off a series of little crises elsewhere in the draft. To switch to another metaphor, it’s like the horseshoe nail that lost the kingdom: revising a word in a sentence can change the rhythm, which throws off the paragraph, and suddenly the entire chapter—or the whole novel—needs to be rethought. And I’m only slightly exaggerating. At the moment, I’m nearing the end of a significant rewrite of my current novel, with a long list of changes big and small, and although most live on the level of the sentence or paragraph, I won’t know how they really play until I sit down tonight and read the whole thing straight through. That read, in turn, will suggest additional changes, meaning that the novel has to be read yet again, and so on and so forth until I collide with my deadline on Friday.

Ideally, each round of changes will be less extensive than the one before, gradually converging, like a function approaching its limit, at the story’s ideal form, or at least something close enough. This seems to be what Davis is describing, and it’s clear that her stories demand nothing less: they’re so condensed and intense, like poetry, that a single wrong word would tear them apart. The problem is that even as the story nears its perfect shape, if it even exists, the author is changing in the meantime: the standards you had when you started may not be the ones you have now, after you’ve been shaped by the work itself. Much of writing consists of managing that threefold relationship between the story, your original intentions, and whatever you’re feeling today. When the process doesn’t go perfectly, which is to say most of the time, you end up with the ghost-phrases that Saunders describes, a mismatch between the story in your head and its published form. Davis seems determined to exorcise those ghosts, and by her own account, she usually succeeds. She wouldn’t be here if she didn’t. And if the rest of us are still haunted by our ghost-phrases, well, we can take heart in the words of Jez Butterworth, who notes that a matter of milliseconds can make the difference between nearly and really—even if the process can start to feel a little like Butterworth’s own script for Edge of Tomorrow. You try, fail, and repeat.

Philip Roth on uncertainty and new beginnings

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Philip Roth

Beginning a book is unpleasant. I’m entirely uncertain about the character and the predicament, and a character in his predicament is what I have to begin with. Worse than not knowing your subject is not knowing how to treat it, because that’s finally everything. I type out beginnings and they’re awful, more of an unconscious parody of my previous book than the breakaway from it that I want. I need something driving down the center of a book, a magnet to draw everything to it—that’s what I look for during the first months of writing something new. I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive. Okay, I say to myself, that’s your beginning, start there; that’s the first paragraph of the book. I’ll go over the first six months of work and underline in red a paragraph, a sentence, sometimes no more than a phrase, that has some life in it, and then I’ll type all these out on one page. Usually it doesn’t come to more than one page, but if I’m lucky, that’s the start of page one. I look for the liveliness to set the tone. After the awful beginning come the months of freewheeling play, and after the play come the crises, turning against your material and hating the book…

What matters most isn’t there at all. I don’t mean the solutions to problems, I mean the problems themselves. You’re looking, as you begin, for what’s going to resist you. You’re looking for trouble. Sometimes in the beginning uncertainty arises not because the writing is difficult, but because it isn’t difficult enough. Fluency can be a sign that nothing is happening; fluency can actually be my signal to stop, while being in the dark from sentence to sentence is what convinces me to go on.

Philip Roth, to The Paris Review

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January 1, 2014 at 9:00 am

Living with dissatisfaction

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Ben Hecht

Novelists come in all shapes and sizes, but if they’re united by anything, it’s two qualities of mind. The first is an irrational optimism, a sense that despite all evidence to the contrary, they’ll conquer the odds and become one of the thousand or fewer authors on the planet to make a living from writing fiction alone. The second is ambition, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Ambition is the only force that can carry any sane person through the effort of writing an entire novel: a more rational being would have given up long before, and many often do. We have ambition to thank for the novels that stand as towering works of the human spirit, for the most crassly calculated commercial fiction, and for everything in between: if money were the only thing on a writer’s mind, after all, there are easier ways of making a living. It all comes down to a desire to be known as a writer, or to leave something meaningful behind when we’re gone, and while other factors—an urgent story to tell, the need to express our innermost thoughts and feelings, a sense of emptiness when we contemplate a life without some sustaining project—it’s ambition that keeps it going and carries it home.

That’s the good thing about ambition: it comes out of nowhere and rarely leaves a true writer entirely, and without it, the shelves of our homes and libraries would be bare. But there’s a dark side to it as well. It’s the voice in a writer’s head that tells him that he’ll never be as good as he has the potential to be, and one that quickly takes for granted what he’s already accomplished. Speaking of romantic love, the great screenwriter Ben Hecht once wrote:

If you ask a man who many times he has loved—unless there is love in his heart at the moment—he is likely to answer, “Never.” He will say, if his heart is loveless, that often he had thought he loved, but that, victim or hero of love, he was mistaken. For only love can believe in love—or even remember it.

Change a word here and there, and that sums up how most writers feel about what they’ve done in the past. When you’re working on a novel, it seems urgent, inevitable, the most important thing in the world; when it’s done, even in published form, it starts to feel a little dead, and whatever pleasure it once gave you is quickly swallowed up by the drive to move on to the next big thing. That voice in your head is implacable and coolly rational: What you’ve done so far is all very well and good, it says, but what have you done for me lately?

Philip Roth

Learning to live with those two sides of ambition is one of the hardest challenges faced by a writer, or any creative artist. I’ve been living with an unquenchable ambition for as long as I can remember, and brother, it’s exhausting. I love writing, but as with so many other authors before me, the act itself gets tied up with other, less wholesome emotions, like competition or dissatisfaction. It doesn’t help to remind myself that if I’m dissatisfied with what I’ve done so far, it has less to do with my achievements themselves then with an ingrained state of mind: I’m the kind of person who is never going to be entirely satisfied, even if I tick off every item on my literary bucket list. I even catch myself wondering what it would be like to turn it all off. If there were a switch I could press to take my ambitions away, leaving me content with what I’ve accomplished and willing to live in relative peace, there are times when I’d be tempted to flip it. When someone like Philip Roth decides that it’s no longer worth the trouble and walks away, it makes headlines, but Roth only did what most writers, in their heart of hearts, often wish they could do, if only the voices in their heads would allow it.

And the only solution I’ve ever found is to refocus that ambition on the one place where it can do a bit of good, regardless of its external results: on the way you spend your time from one minute to the next. We may not be able to control what happens to our work once we’re done with it, or how we’ll feel about it if we ever see it in print, but we can at least make sure that our free time is spent thinking about the things we care about and pursuing the activities that matter to us. In some ways, that’s the most worthwhile ambition at all—the determination to own the time that we’re afforded, not just on the level of constructing a body of work that will outlive us, but on spending the next available hour doing something we find interesting. It’s quite possible that, like Hecht’s hypothetical lover, we won’t be satisfied with what we’ve produced, but the time invested in that pursuit can’t be wasted, however many mistakes we make along the way. Whenever I feel less than content with something I’ve done, I stop and ask myself a slightly different question: Am I happy with the way I spent the time it took? And if the response is yes, then I’ve got my real answer.

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December 9, 2013 at 9:05 am

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Googling the rise and fall of literary reputations: the sequel

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Note: To celebrate the third anniversary of this blog, I’ll be spending the week reposting some of my favorite pieces from early in its run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on December 20, 2010.

After playing over the weekend with the new word frequency tool in Google Books, I quickly came to realize that my recent post on the subject barely scratched the surface. It’s fun to compare novelists against other writers in the same category, for example, but what happens when we look at authors in different categories altogether? The graph above, for instance, shows us what we get when we chart two of the most famous literary authors of the latter half of the century against their counterparts on the bestseller list. And while the results may seem surprising at first, they aren’t hard to understand.

Looking at the chart, it’s clear that books by Philip Roth and John Updike might be outsold by Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann in their initial run (the occasional freak like Couples or Portnoy’s Complaint aside), but as they enter the canon, they’re simply talked about more often, especially by other writers, than their bestselling contemporaries. (Robbins and Susann, by contrast, probably aren’t cited very often outside their own books.) Compared to the trajectory of a canonical author, the graph of a bestseller begins to look less like a mountain and more like a molehill—or a speed bump. But now look here:

Something else altogether seems to be at work in this chart, and it’s only a reminder of the singularity of Stephen King’s career. Soon after his debut—Carrie‘Salem’s LotThe Shining, and The Stand were all published within the same five years—King had overtaken the likes of Robbins and Susann both on the bestseller lists and in terms of cultural impact. Then something even stranger happened: he became canonical. He was prolific, popular, and wrote books that were endlessly referenced within the culture. As a result, his graph looks like no other—an appropriately monstrous hybrid of the bestselling author and serious novelist. So what happens when we extend the graph beyond the year 2000, which is where the original numbers end? Here’s what we see:

A number of interesting things begin to happen in the last decade. Robbins and Susann look more like speed bumps than ever before. King’s popularity begins to taper off just as he becomes officially canonical—right when he receives lifetime achievement honors from the National Book Awards. And just as Updike himself once predicted, he and Roth seem to have switched places in 2004, or just after the appearance of The Plot Against America, which marks the peak, so far, of Roth’s late resurgence.

Of course, the conclusions I’ve drawn here are almost certainly flawed. There’s no way of knowing, at least not without looking more closely at the underlying data, whether the number of citations of a given author reflects true cultural prominence or something else. And it’s even harder to correlate any apparent patterns—if they’re actually there at all—with particular works or historical events, especially given the lag time of the publishing process. But there’s one chart, which I’ve been saving for last, which is so striking that I can’t help but believe that it represents something real:

This is a chart of the novelists who, according to a recent New York Times poll, wrote the five best American novels of the past twenty-five years: Toni Morrison (Beloved), Don DeLillo (Underworld), John Updike (Rabbit Angstrom), Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian), and Philip Roth (American Pastoral). The big news here, obviously, is Morrison’s amazing ascent around 1987, when Beloved was published. It isn’t hard to see why: Beloved was the perfect storm of literary fiction, a bestselling, critically acclaimed novel that also fit beautifully into the college curriculum. Morrison’s decline in recent years has less to do, I expect, with any real fall in her reputation than with a natural settling to more typical levels. (Although it’s interesting to note that the drop occurs shortly after Morrison received the Nobel Prize, thus locking her into the canon.)

It might be argued, and rightly so, that it’s unfair to turn literary reputation into such a horse race. But such numbers are going to be an inevitable part of the conversation from now on, and not just in terms of citations. It’s appropriate that Google unveiled this new search tool just as Amazon announced that it was making BookScan sales numbers available to its authors, allowing individual writers to do what I’m doing here, on a smaller and more personal scale. And if there’s any silver lining, it’s this: as the cases of Robbins and Susann remind us, in the end, sales don’t matter. After all, looking at the examples given above, which of these graphs would you want?

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November 26, 2013 at 9:00 am

Googling the rise and fall of literary reputations

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Note: To celebrate the third anniversary of this blog, I’ll be spending the week reposting some of my favorite pieces from early in its run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on December 17, 2010.

As the New York Times recently pointed out, Google’s new online book database, which allows users to chart the evolving frequency of words and short phrases over 5.2 million digitized volumes, is a wonderful toy. You can look at the increasing frequency of George Carlin’s seven dirty words, for example—not surprisingly, they’ve all become a lot more common over the past few decades—or chart the depressing ascent of the word “alright.” Most seductively of all, perhaps, you can see at a glance how literary reputations have risen or fallen over time.

Take the five in the graph above, for instance. It’s hard not to see that, for all the talk of the death of Freud, he’s doing surprisingly well, and even passed Shakespeare in the mid-’70s (around the same time, perhaps not coincidentally, as Woody Allen’s creative peak). Goethe experienced a rapid fall in popularity in the mid-’30s, though he had recovered nicely by the end of World War II. Tolstoy, by contrast, saw a modest spike sometime around the Big Three conference in Tehran, and a drop as soon as the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb. And Kafka, while less popular during the satisfied ’50s, saw a sudden surge in the paranoid decades thereafter:

Obviously, it’s possible to see patterns anywhere, and I’m not claiming that these graphs reflect real historical cause and effect. But it’s fun to think about. Even more fun is to look at the relative popularity of five leading American novelists of the last half of the twentieth century:

The most interesting graph is that for Norman Mailer, who experiences a huge ascent up to 1970, when his stature as a cultural icon was at his peak (just after his run for mayor of New York). Eventually, though, his graph—like those of Gore Vidal, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow—follows the trajectory that we’d suspect for that of an established, serious author: a long, gradual rise followed by a period of stability, as the author enters the official canon. Compare this to a graph of four best-selling novelists of the 1970s:

For Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann, Irving Wallace, and Arthur Hailey—and if you don’t recognize their names, ask your parents—we see a rapid rise in popularity followed by an equally rapid decline, which is what we might expect for authors who were once hugely popular but had no lasting value. And it’ll be interesting to see what this graph will look like in fifty years for, say, Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown, and in which category someone like Jonathan Franzen or J.K. Rowling will appear. Only time, and Google, will tell.

Honor among writers

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Philip Roth

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.”

John Updike

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.”

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October 21, 2013 at 8:47 am

Survival of the envious

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Gore Vidal

“I believe that nothing completely satisfies an imaginative writer,” wrote Frederick Locker-Lampson, “but copious and continuous amounts of unmitigated praise, always provided it is accompanied by a large and increasing sale of his works.” I’d like to say that this is a humorous exaggeration, but really, it’s pretty much the truth. Writers, by nature, are insecure creatures: they’ve chosen a trade that offers few visible rewards for years on end, often in the face of justified skepticism from their family and friends, and even those who make it into print generally only do so after much rejection. Once they’ve been published, they’re likely to find themselves confronted with an entirely different set of problems: the fact that their work is freely available to public opinion leaves them perpetually skinless, to use Walter Murch’s memorable phrase, and these days, a writer who wants to obsess over sales figures and reviews can do so in real time, a prospect that might have made even Locker-Lampson’s head explode.

And the amount of information available to contemporary writers only magnifies their natural tendency to emphasize bad news over good. No matter how well things might be going in other respects, there’s always a lukewarm reader review, a dip in sales rank, or a list of award nominees that glaringly omits the writer’s own name. Worst of all is what I like to think of as the Colonel Cathcart complex, in which a writer can’t be altogether happy if there’s another author out there somewhere, his age or younger, who is doing ever so slightly better in the same general field. Few writers, no matter how emotionally healthy they might be in other respects, can bring themselves to view their own success in absolute terms: it’s always the relative measure that stings. Which is really just a particularly ingenious way of guaranteeing that no writer can ever be entirely content. “Writers seldom wish other writers well,” Saul Bellow says, in a slightly softened version of Gore Vidal’s more pointed observation: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”

Philip Roth

None of these observations are new, of course; even if they hadn’t been confirmed by other writers, they’re facts that any writer can verify just by consulting his own feelings whenever another record-breaking advance or movie deal is announced. And all the evidence implies that such dissatisfaction is a permanent part of the writing life. If you had a laboratory in which you could assemble a perfect writer, one whose career followed a perfect trajectory—early acclaim yielding to massive mainstream success and a second golden period in old age—you’d end up with Philip Roth, whose unhappiness with his own life’s work is a matter of record. But the most terrifying truth of all is that these feelings aren’t an undesirable side effect of a writer’s existence, but an essential element of it. Any writer who survives to produce more than a few good books is a creature who has been forced to evolve under considerable environmental pressure, and the one common trait that lies beneath all great careers is the refusal to be satisfied.

In an ideal world, this kind of professional envy would concentrate solely on matters of art: it’s natural and presumably healthy to want to write better books than any of one’s peers. (Like most writers, I’d like to believe that if the books I wrote already existed, I’d be content just to read them, and leave the hard work to someone else.) Yet this obsession with the quality of one’s craft shades naturally into the less positive characteristics that are equally central to a writer’s identity. A writer is like a show dog who has been bred for certain desirable characteristics that happen to go hand in hand with chronic, sometimes crippling problems, like a pekingese whose flat face leads to trouble breathing, or a great dane with hip dysplasia. For writers, the desirable qualities are perfectionism and obsession with craft; the side effects, sadly, are insecurity and jealousy. As far as treating the condition goes, a steady drip of praise and good sales is one answer; drugs and alcohol are another; but the best cure, inevitably, is work, as Norman Mailer once said with regard to his own bad reviews:

[They] put iron into my heart again, and rage…and so one had to mend, and put on the armor, and go to war, go out to war again, and try to hew huge strokes with the only broadsword God ever gave you, a glimpse of something like Almighty prose.

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March 25, 2013 at 9:50 am

“The struggle with writing is over…”

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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.

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November 19, 2012 at 9:50 am

“I did the best I could…”

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I wanted to see if I had wasted my time writing. And I thought it was rather successful. At the end of his life, the boxer Joe Louis said: “I did the best I could with what I had.” This is exactly what I would say of my work: I did the best I could with what I had.

Philip Roth, to Les Inrocks

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November 10, 2012 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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March 23, 2012 at 7:50 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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Googling the rise and fall of literary reputations: the sequel

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After playing over the weekend with the new word frequency tool in Google Books, I quickly came to realize that last week’s post barely scratched the surface. It’s fun to compare novelists against other writers in the same category, for example, but what happens when we look at authors in different categories altogether? Here’s what we get, for instance, when we chart two of the most famous literary authors of the latter half of the century against their counterparts on the bestseller list:

The results may seem surprising at first, but they aren’t hard to understand. Books by Philip Roth and John Updike might be outsold by Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann in their initial run (the occasional freak like Couples or Portnoy’s Complaint aside), but as they enter the canon, they’re simply talked about more often, by other writers, than their bestselling contemporaries. (Robbins and Susann, by contrast, probably aren’t cited very often outside their own books.) Compared to the trajectory of a canonical author, the graph of a bestseller begins to look less like a mountain and more like a molehill—or a speed bump. But now look here:

Something else altogether seems to be at work in this chart, and it’s only a reminder of the singularity of Stephen King’s career. Soon after his debut—Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and The Stand were all published within the same five years—King had overtaken the likes of Robbins and Susann both on the bestseller lists and in terms of cultural impact. Then something even stranger happened: he became canonical. He was prolific, popular, and wrote books that were endlessly referenced within the culture. As a result, his graph looks like no other—an appropriately monstrous hybrid of the bestselling author and serious novelist.

So what happens when we extend the graph beyond the year 2000, which is where the original numbers end? Here’s what we see:

A number of interesting things begin to happen in the last decade. Robbins and Susann look more like speed bumps than ever before. King’s popularity begins to taper off just as he becomes officially canonical—right when he receives lifetime achievement honors from the National Book Awards. And Roth and Updike seem to have switched places in 2004, or just after the appearance of The Plot Against America, which marks the peak, so far, of Roth’s late resurgence.

Of course, the conclusions I’ve drawn here are almost certainly flawed. There’s no way of knowing, at least not without looking more closely at the underlying data, whether the number of citations of a given author reflects true cultural prominence or something else. And it’s even harder to correlate any apparent patterns—if they’re actually there at all—with particular works or historical events, especially given the lag time of the publishing process. But there’s one chart, which I’ve been saving for last, which is so striking that I can’t help but believe that it represents something real:

This is a chart of the novelists who, according to a recent New York Times poll, wrote the five best American novels of the past twenty-five years: Toni Morrison (Beloved), Don DeLillo (Underworld), John Updike (Rabbit Angstrom), Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian), and Philip Roth (American Pastoral). The big news here, obviously, is Morrison’s amazing ascent around 1987, when Beloved was published. It isn’t hard to see why: Beloved was the perfect storm of literary fiction, a bestselling, critically acclaimed novel that also fit beautifully into the college curriculum. Morrison’s decline in recent years has less to do, I expect, with any real fall in her reputation than with a natural settling to more typical levels. (Although it’s interesting to note that the drop occurs shortly after Morrison received the Nobel Prize, thus locking her into the canon. Whether or not this drop is typical of officially canonized authors is something I hope to explore in a later post.)

It might be argued, and rightly so, that it’s unfair to turn literary reputation into such a horse race. But such numbers are going to be an inevitable part of the conversation from now on, and not just in terms of citations. It’s appropriate that Google unveiled this new search tool just as Amazon announced that it was making BookScan sales numbers available to its authors, allowing individual writers to do what I’m doing here, on a smaller and more personal scale. And if there’s any silver lining, it’s this: as the cases of Robbins and Susann remind us, in the end, sales don’t matter. After all, looking at the examples given above, which of these graphs would you want?

Googling the rise and fall of literary reputations

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As the New York Times recently pointed out, Google’s new online book database, which allows users to chart the evolving frequency of words and short phrases over 5.2 million digitized volumes, is a wonderful toy. You can look at the increasing frequency of George Carlin’s seven dirty words, for example—not surprisingly, they’ve all become a lot more common over the past few decades—or chart the depressing ascent of “alright.” Most seductively, perhaps, you can see at a glance how literary reputations have risen or fallen over time. Take these five, for example:

It’s hard not to see that, for all the talk of the death of Freud, he’s doing surprisingly well, and even passed Shakespeare in the mid-’70s (around the same time, perhaps not coincidentally, as Woody Allen’s creative peak). Goethe experienced a rapid fall in popularity in the mid-’30s, though he had recovered nicely by the end of World War II. Tolstoy, by contrast, saw a spike sometime around the Big Three conference in Tehran, and a drop as soon as the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb. And Kafka, while less popular during the satisfied ’50s, saw a sudden surge in the paranoid decades thereafter:

Obviously, it’s possible to see patterns anywhere, and I’m not claiming that these graphs reflect real historical cause and effect. But it’s fun to think about. Even more fun is to look at the relative popularity of five leading American novelists of the last half of the twentieth century:

The most interesting graph is that for Norman Mailer, who experiences a huge ascent up to 1970, when his stature as a cultural icon was at his peak (just after his run for mayor of New York). Eventually, though, his graph—like those of Gore Vidal, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow—follows the trajectory that we might suspect for that of an established, serious author: a long, gradual rise followed by a period of stability, as the author enters the official canon. Compare this to a graph of four best-selling novelists of the 1970s:

For Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann, Irving Wallace, and Arthur Hailey—and if you don’t recognize their names, ask your parents—we see a rapid rise in popularity followed by an equally rapid decline, which is what we might expect for authors who were once hugely popular but had no lasting value.

It’ll be interesting to see what this graph will look like in fifty years for, say, Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown, and in which category someone like Jonathan Franzen or J.K. Rowling will appear. Only time, and Google, will tell.

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