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Living or Writing: On Philip Roth and Calling It Quits

Hearing the news of Philip Roth's death made me think of this old essay I wrote, but never did anything with. I'm publishing it here now since so much of it deals with how his retirement was a seeming death for Roth, which has now actually taken place. Note: Some of this is very dated, but I think it's so of its time it wouldn't help to update it.

I began writing because I had made friends with the dead: they had written to me, in their books, about life on earth and I wanted to write back and say yes, house, bridge, river, hair, no, maybe, never, forever.

— Mary Ruefle

There isn’t enough evidence to back it up either way, but most people think that there are more new books being published now than ever before. They may be right, but I think that most bookstores always stock more dead authors than living ones. I imagine if there was a bookstore separated into sections for living and dead authors, there would be looming stacks of dead authors casting shadows over the smartly arranged table displays on the other side of the room for the living authors, with staff on both sides complaining about lack of shelf space. I have a friend who says that he never reads living authors—which is not 100% accurate since he copy edits novels for a paycheck, but in his own reading choices it’s true—he would never get lost in a bookstore like that. This friend still hasn’t read the manuscript that I recently sent to him even though he printed it out and had it with him on two transatlantic flights. I try not to wonder what he is waiting for.

There was a story that made the internet literary gossip rounds a few months ago. What happened was that Philip Roth stopped into a deli for breakfast one day and Julian Tepper, a waiter who worked there and who had just published his first novel took a copy of his book over to Roth, and when he asked for the elder writer’s blessing Roth slit his throat.

OK that’s not exactly what happened but it feels that way to me.

Tepper quoted Roth as saying this to him: “I would quit while you're ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”

Two weeks after he said this, Roth announced his retirement.

Now this whole story really bothered me the more I started to think about it. It’s not so much Philip Roth’s advice which I think was horrible. It was a misunderstanding about the reasons we write.

Julian Tepper came away from the experience with a Paris Review blog post, lots of word of mouth free publicity for his new book, and some l'esprit de l'escalier conclusion that as long as he writes he can always avoid boredom. Boredom! Has he seen that Microsoft is coming out with the new Xbox One? The controller has independent rumble packs underneath the triggers. Independent rumble packs! One for each finger! You never have to be bored again.

But what about Roth? What do you do when one of the most respected authors of the 20th century makes this kind of remark about writing? If he genuinely feels that way about his own writing it’s comforting to know that crushing self-doubt doesn’t negate talent or success. It’s romantic, but I think the experience in the deli is what made Philip Roth announce his retirement, that he thought about what he had told Tepper and, in a spotlight-drenched moment of revelation, realized “I don’t want to do this to myself anymore. I’ll just stop now.” Whether or not he had made a final decision yet, his retirement was definitely on his mind when he was approached by this earnest young writer gripping a first novel by two hands. Did he just want to hurt the man’s feelings? It’s not completely out of character: Roth is the last of the clutch of Phallocratic authors that once held sway over American literature, the kind of authors Katie Roiphe complains don’t exist anymore because the contemporary “Brooklyn” authors won’t fuck her at parties behind their wives’ backs. What was Roth complaining about? These were not comments about the publishing industry: Roth wasn’t knocking his editor for picking out a title or some crappy book jacket design he didn’t like; these were not even comments about declining readership or the shift to electronic media. He was talking about Writing, writing in the most ideal Platonic sense of the word. In that way I feel sorry for him, but striving writers, like me, don’t just get to worry about if the work is “any good.” There’s: Who will notice? And also: How will I pay the rent? But what makes it worse, for me, is that I know that he is absolutely right, in the most pessimistic part of my brain he is more right about this than anyone has ever been right about anything.

That book that my friend never read, after I sent it to him I sent it out to a bunch of different publishers. I picked the kind of presses I thought it would appeal to, indie places with experimental tastes. It took a lot of research and a lot of time to prepare the submissions and after I was done I felt like I never wanted to write anything else ever again. It wasn’t the submitting that bothered me, and it wasn’t the pressure that I might be getting rejection letters in a few months time. It was that I just didn’t like what I wrote now that I looked back at parts of it. It wasn’t “any good” as far as I could tell.

It was about then I decided that I probably would give up writing once I was done writing my master’s thesis. I would just satisfy all the requirements, hit the minimum page length, get all the margins right, turn it in and move on with my life. I was going to do exactly what Philip Roth told Julain Tepper to do: quit while I was ahead.

There were a lot of things going through my mind. There is a lot to be scared about with writing. You need to fight, really be ready to slaughter, if you expect to be heard. It’s a field that has expanded its talent pool at the same time the money has contracted. With any luck you get published solely as a means to support your continued employment teaching in an MFA program, ushering the next tier of writers into the same Ponzi scheme. There’s a real possibility that even when you do get published, no one is going to open the cover of your book. Those problems are bad enough. Mostly, I became convinced that the work—not my work, but writing itself—did not have any value. I should be doing something to better support my family and get a real job, I thought, something that matters, not just because it’s a paycheck but because it really does something. I suddenly became convinced that no matter what you write, no one will understand you. Anything I put on the page would fail to communicate. I was convinced completely that no one is capable of looking at a piece of writing and just saying: YES. Or even: NO. Those aren’t the responses your writing gets, instead it’s all: what are you trying to say with this? And: what does it mean? Or even worse: Why am I reading this? And that made my heart collapse. That made me think if I can’t avoid explaining myself, I’d rather not write anything at all, because to go any further, to add more than is already there on the page is a way to articulate that you have failed. They will always want to know Why. People don’t need justification, why should writing? Why should they force you to justify yourself? Kurt Vonnegut said rage and loathing at a piece of writing was like putting on a full suit of armor to attack a hot fudge sundae. Why make hot fudge sundaes at all if readers want to charge in with their visors down? I don’t want this to sound like an inspirational craft article by one of those mid- to nolist authors nobody cares about, that kind of writerly self-help that tells you how to overcome adversity and gets more depressing with each wise fart that it wafts out. I want this to sound like blood coming out of my ears.

What do you do when you start to not care?

It’s not a hypothetical question. This is life or death. It’s about killing my career before it’s alive.

Roth I think is worried about being dead. Roth is weird like that. The way he retired was almost a way to preview his death. I think most newspapers probably reacted to the news about Roth’s retirement by modifying the obits they had for him on file. He’s also the only living writer who has a collection in the Library of America catalog. He’s the closest thing we have to a living dead author, kind of ghoulish. So when Roth told Tepper, he was saying that from in-between in that living and dead bookstore. It’s morose, but his last few novels were all morose, so it’s not a big surprise. Roth is bothered that his work won’t be “any good” for the Canon, the kind of question that not many writers ever get to ask themselves realistically. “Any good” to us means so many other things. I don’t think it was on Julian Tepper’s mind when he walked over with his book. But when Roth foisted his self-pity on this unsuspecting victim, telling him to quit, he was sacrificing another writer’s self-respect to service the project of his own ego. That’s why I say Roth cut Tepper’s throat. When Odysseus got to the underworld of Hades he killed a pair of sheep whose spilled blood allowed the dead to talk to him. The deli was Roth’s trip to the underworld. I think Roth is worried about how good he will sound when people try to talk to him when he’s dead. Here there is a live writer standing in front of him, trying to connect, and Roth is too busy sizing himself up on the shelf.

So why would you do it?

Two months after I sent out my manuscript I got an email from one of the publishers I sent it to that said they wanted to publish my book.

They said YES.

And that was “any good” for me. And if people want to ask me why I wrote it, this is what I’ll tell them:

I think if you want to be a writer you want to do it so some real living people besides well-meaning family members and established friends can hold your book up to the sides of their heads and say: “This is fucking awesome.” The living value of writing is not in fame or posterity, it’s in communicating. I say this to you, and you to me. We talk. We do not have conversations with the dead, and only people who breathe still care. We talk, and we talk into each others’ faces. That is what Writing has to be. In that way, the dead can never match the living. Writing is not just something to keep yourself from being bored. That’s where drugs come in, that’s why you have fingers. You want your writing to take off people’s pants. Philip Roth of all people should get that. If you’re worried about whether or not you’ll be an author who’s “any good” to be a good dead one, then you’re shuffling in between the two parts of that bookstore, not living, not dead. You’re some kind of freaking zombie author and not the kind that writes literary apocalypses like A Questionable Shape or Zone One, you’re a real half-living half-corpse and that’s not cool.

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