Authors call their writing “work” for a reason, and there aren’t many who worked like Philip Roth—or took it as seriously. Use of the past tense is necessary now that he’s officially announced his retirement. Forget his output for the moment; anyone aware of his daily writing routine—long, solitary hours spent standing at a podium because of a bad back—would probably agree the man deserves a break, and on his own terms.
But then there is that output. I was in high school when my mother, who grew up on the Newark-East Orange border and professed to know people who knew the people Roth was writing about, steered me to Goodbye Columbus and The Ghost Writer (I later picked up Portnoy’s Complaint on my own, along with Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson). A college roommate, generally allergic to literary fiction, came back from English class one afternoon unable to stop talking about “The Conversion of the Jews.” When my wife and I first met, she was reading (and recommending) The Professor of Desire, Letting Go, and When She Was Good; she later had a colleague who insisted on the brilliance of Sabbath’s Theater. All of these would have been enough, but American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain, The Plot Against America, and Everyman were still to come. It seems as if there’s always been something new from Roth to read, and when there wasn’t, there was still plenty to go back to: He wrote 31 novels, novellas, and collections over his career, eight since 2000.
And none of it, he notes in a New York Times interview, came easy.
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.
The admission is admirable, and the self-awareness preempts the possibility of a misfire like those that have come from other writers (take your pick) in late-career. “If I write a new book it will probably be a failure,” he has said. Roth mentions baseball, and maybe he knows it’s better to go out like Ted Williams with a homer in your final at-bat than, say, like Willie Mays circling under fly balls in a Mets uniform. He is said to be at peace with the decision, happily learning the intricacies of his iPhone and entrusting the estimable Blake Bailey with his biography.
Work is ever-present in Roth’s fiction, in the portrayals of his protagonists’ families and forbears—shop-keepers and ditch-diggers and glove-makers and radio actors. But so is the work of his writer-narrators, like the oft-appearing Nathan Zuckerman laboring to understand the tragedies and injustices one is doomed to suffer in the short course of a lifetime. “Amateurs look for inspiration,” says his Everyman narrator, quoting the painter Chuck Close. “The rest of us just get up and go to work.” Notwithstanding Alice Munro (81), William Trevor (84) and Nadine Gordimer (89 today), it’s the kind of work that takes its toll, especially when, as D.G. Myers notes, Roth (79) didn’t simply write, he understood “the moral obligation to write well.”
Unburdening himself of that obligation must come as a relief. According to the Times story, Roth has a Post-It note on his computer reading: “The struggle with writing is over.”