Sunday, November 18, 2012

Philip Roth Retires From Writing

Philip Roth, 2012. Photo by Fred R. Conrad, from The New York Times.

Book jacket for Nemesis, 2010, which may be Philip Roth's last book.
The acclaimed novelist Philip Roth recently announced his retirement from writing. This news makes me sad. I’ve just started recently to read Roth’s work and I think he’s a great writer. I read Roth’s novella Goodbye, Columbus when I was in college in either 1999 or 2000. I liked it, but I don’t remember too much about it; I need to re-read it. The first book of Roth’s that I seriously read was his 2010 novel, Nemesis, which, ironically enough, may well turn out to be his very last book. I was bowled over by Nemesis, which I wrote a review of here. I liked Nemesis so much that I decided now was the time to start reading some of Roth’s other books. So last winter I read his 1973 book, The Great American Novel, which is a very amusing title for a book. Philip Roth can say that he literally wrote The Great American Novel! Roth’s book may not be the definitive “Great American Novel,” but it’s pretty good and very funny. And it’s about baseball, my favorite sport. For The Great American Novel, Roth invented a fictional third major league of baseball, the Patriot League. The basis for most of the book is that during World War II, the owners of the Port Ruppert Mundys lease the stadium to the government, thus forcing the Mundys to play the entire season of baseball on the road. Which may sound like a crazy idea, but it’s the kind of idea that’s just stupid enough for major league baseball to have tried. The Great American Novel is a book I would recommend to baseball fans looking for a farcical take on the game. It’s very clear from the way the book is written that Roth is a big baseball fan. I don’t think he’s ever written anything else about baseball, which is surprising. I’m certainly not an expert on Philip Roth or his work, but I’m very interested to read more of his novels. 

Roth sounds pretty definitive in his pronouncement of retirement. He told the French magazine Les InRocks, “I decided that I was done with fiction, I don’t want to read any more of it, write any more of it, and I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. I have dedicated my life to the novel: I have studied it, I have taught it, I have written it and I have read it. To the exclusion of almost everything else. It’s enough. I no longer feel this dedication to write that I have experienced my whole life. The idea of struggling once more with writing is unbearable to me.” (Translation from The New York Times.) That sounds like a man who has definitely made up his mind. In an interview published today in The New York Times, Roth says that he has a Post-It on his computer that reads “The struggle with writing is over.” Roth said, “I look at that note every morning and it gives me such strength.” Yep, he sounds serious about retiring. It’s rather surprising to me to hear Roth describe writing as a struggle, since he’s been so prolific lately. I know all creative endeavors are a struggle to one degree or another, but the words seemed to be coming easily for Philip Roth, he doesn’t seem to be suffering from writer’s block. In fact, of the 31 books that Roth has published since 1959, 15 of them have been published since 1990, an extraordinary period of creativity. And since Roth hasn’t published anything since Nemesis in 2010, that means that he published 15 books in just 20 years, which is very productive for a serious literary fiction writer. And those 15 books were nearly all highly acclaimed works, winning Roth the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and three PEN/Faulkner Awards for Fiction. However, after finishing Nemesis, Roth felt that he might want to retire, so he spent a lot of time re-reading other fiction that had inspired him, and re-reading almost all of his own books. “So I read all that great stuff, and then I read my own and I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to slave over it. 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.” Roth’s baseball metaphor is an apt one. A .300 batting average in baseball has long been the hallmark of a successful hitter. But a .300 batting average still means that you’re failing two-thirds of the time. And a writer could fail much more than two-thirds of the time and still come up with brilliant work when they do succeed. But no one except the writer knows how often they fail, how many times the day’s work ends up in the trash can, or how one great page was edited down from nine sub-standard pages. 

According to the Times article, Roth has appointed Blake Bailey as his biographer, and Roth is assisting Bailey as he combs through Roth’s archives. Bailey has written acclaimed biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever, so the biography of Roth should be a treat. 

Here’s a link to the Times article, it’s very much worth reading, as Roth says it’s his last interview. There’s also an audio clip of Roth talking to Charles McGrath, the author of the article. I was struck by how young Roth sounds. He doesn’t sound like a 79-year-old; he sounds like he’s 40 or 50. The photograph of Roth by Fred R. Conrad that accompanies the article is also very nice, and I’ve posted it above. Roth looks good for his age, and his eyes show his intelligence-they look soulful, penetrating, and determined. 

As a reader, it’s easy to be greedy and always want more from a favorite author. But the fact is that Philip Roth is going to turn 80 next March, and he’s been producing remarkable fiction for the last 50 years, so I suppose it’s certainly fair for him to say, “That’s enough.” I hope Philip Roth enjoys his retirement from writing, he’s certainly earned it.

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