Monday, January 07, 2013

ON PHILIP ROTH, AND FORGETTING

I'm not sure that, when I was an unpublished writer, I ever really wanted to be given the opportunity to pick the brains of published writers. First of all, I didn't know many published writers. There was the poet Brendan Kennelly, who taught me in Trinity College and came from my mother's village, but it never struck me to ask him anything about publishing, and I was long gone from university by the time it became an issue. Similarly, Dave Hegarty, the gentleman who owned the first gym I ever joined, published a novel while I was there, but I was only about eighteen or nineteen at that stage, and my being a novelist seemed about as likely then as my chances of becoming Mr. Universe.

But even when I began working on my first book, which became Every Dead Thing, I had no urge to seek the advice of those who were already published. I didn't want to take a writing course conducted by a novelist, or corner a writer at a book-signing. As a journalist, I attended a couple of book launches, and interviewed a writer or two, but I never mentioned to any of them that I was working on my own book. It wasn't that I was supremely self-confident, because I wasn't. It simply never crossed my mind that it was something I might bring up (like a hairball). If the writer's life is best suited to those who work alone and don't find solitude a burden, then I was halfway there before I ever set a word down on the page. Writing, like politics or religion, seemed to me to be best left undiscussed in polite conversation.

So it was with some interest that I read the description of a waiter-cum-writer's encounter with the great, but presumably somewhat glass-is-half-emptyish, Philip Roth. (Here's the link, in case you haven't seen it.) Basically, Julian Tepper, the waiter-cum-writer in question, presented Roth, who was minding his own business apart from attempting to order breakfast, with a copy of Tepper's recently published first book. Why Tepper chose to do this, I do not know. Philip Roth wasn't doing him any harm. He just wanted to have breakfast. It takes quite a degree of chutzpah to think that a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, who had recently announced that he didn't read fiction any more, would suddenly recant upon being presented with a first novel called - I kid you not - Balls. In fact, if someone tried to present me with a novel called Balls before - or even after - I'd eaten my breakfast, I might be tempted to express some unhappiness, and suggest there are more appropriate times to hand someone a novel called Balls, although none springs to mind at this moment.

Roth, it seems, told Tepper that Balls was a "great title," although he might have been kidding. It's probably hard to tell with Philip Roth. He then went on to share the following advice with Tepper:
“Yeah, this is great. But 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.”
Maybe it's just me, but I find it a little sad that Roth has presumably forgotten all of the joy and pleasure that attended the publication of his early work - and, indeed, possibly some of his later work too. After all, this is a man who enjoyed an astonishing second wind with the publication of American Pastoral and the novels that followed, and probably got something out of the first wind that attended the publication of Portnoy's Complaint. Yes, the pleasure that comes with the completion, and subsequent publication, of a book is fleeting. Doubt quickly sets in, and no sooner is a book published than the writer frequently wants to retrieve it from the shelves and set about rewriting it, but by then it's a little too late. We can never "unpublish" our books: they trail behind us, a series of experiments that we almost got right. We try to make each book better than the last. Sometimes we even succeed for a book or two. Inevitably, though, we will encounter a critical shrug, a passing remark from a reader or reviewer that suggests our best work was still our first book, and everything that followed has been downhill since then.

Then again, maybe all Roth ever got from writing was misery and unhappiness, but I doubt it. There are writers who wear the burden of being a writer very heavily, in part because they confuse taking what they do seriously with taking themselves seriously, but also because, if you make something look like hard work, and huff and puff a lot about it, then it will discourage the competition while possibly encouraging your publishers to pay you a bit more, and also make people believe, in passing, that you might be an artist, and that's halfway to being a genius. This pose gave Todd Rundgren one of his best album titles, The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect, and continues to be Standard Operating Procedure for would-be literary lions and lionesses the world over. This is not to say that Roth is not a great novelist: he is, but he'd still be a great novelist even if he could bring himself to be a little more gracious about fiction in general, and a little less Eeyore-ish in his pronouncements to young novelists, even ones who interfere with his digestion by presenting him with novels called Balls.

I like being a writer. Yes, it's often frustrating, and I worry about how the changes in publishing are going to affect what I do, and the possibility that I'm harming my career by experimenting too much, and the likelihood of being damned as a fraud and a blight on literature. I start each new book wondering if this is the one that I won't be able to finish, and if such a failure might mean that I will never be able to finish another book again. I've yet to write a book with which I'm entirely happy, but if I did, what then? Would there be any reason, any impetus, to continue? Failure is what impels us, and the paradox is that the very thing driving us forward is also the thing that slowly chips away at our ability to do what we do. "Try again," wrote Samuel Beckett. "Fail again. Fail better." We fail, and we try again, but are we eventually destined to drain our reserves of strength, and grow weary of the fight? Is that what happened to Roth?

Perhaps all that can be learned from Tepper and his encounter is that, all things considered, it's probably better to give old writers a wide berth.

And maybe younger ones too.

THIS WEEK JOHN READ
Sit Down and Cheer: A History of Sport on TV by Martin Kelner  
The Fallen Angel by Daniel Silva

AND LISTENED TO  
Lux by Brian Eno

5 comments:

Anne Walsh said...

hi John, loved your piece on being a writer (although it could equally be applied to most creatives). I'd be curious to know - how do you keep the "failure gap" as an inspiration rather than a abyss between your vision of the book and the reality of it. (If that's true). And have you ever noticed that resistance NEVER comes up if you want to sit down with a box of chocolates and back to back Jeremy Kyle (not that I'm er, speaking from experience or anything.....)

Mich said...

...I hope you didn't think me too presumptuous in giving you a copy of my book on that bus tour. ;) Though at least I wasn't interrupting your meal...

Perhaps Roth was being sarcastic...? I hope so anyway.

There will always be critics who say the books after the first never live up to that first one, or who will claim an author is a blight on literature. But for every one of them, there are probably 100 or more people who think ALL your books are brilliant.
Which obviously, all of your books are. :)

xo!

TomH said...

I'm enjoying the phrase:

"Failure impels us... ."

Never heard it uttered but like it. And the rub... haunting us through life and perhaps through good or bad writing.

That said, please keep doing. The effort makes the journey more pleasant.

Kilburn Hall said...

Hi John-
I notice my link has been removed from your links page. I was not notified. What is the reason?
Kilburn Hall

eirik said...

Hi,

I am reading your latest Charlie Parker book "Wrath of Angles" now (I am only half way through it yet) I have read all your other Charlie Parker books before. I think most of them are quite good and a couple are exceptionally good, I would say. I would like to ask you to make more of "The Collector" in your books. He seems to me to be a character a bit on the side of the story in your books, but still he his on top of all things important. I like his role very much. Can you please keep him going on? I am in doubt if you need develop him much further, but that's why you are a writer and I am not. I am happy with him as a background player, but a very substantial one at that. Please, keep him in the main game. Still, I am curious about him.
And, I think your character Louis is man enough and interesting enough person to be worth a couple of adventures in a book or two of his own now, it is overdue, it is a long time since his last book.
Thank you for great entertainment,
and please keep it going,
With a friendly greeting from Norway,
Eirik