Salvos The Monk Retires

Letting go of Philip Roth

J.C. Hallman

The phenomenon of Philip Roth’s “retirement”—and that seems to be what it is now, a phenomenon—is not about a writer’s vanity, an ego grown so massive it’s like a publicity black hole sucking up limelight that might have shined warmly on other equally deserving authors. Nor is it about an inability to shut up, even though Roth admitted that his decision to quit writing, announced abruptly in 2012, had triggered in him an impulse to “chatter.” (Almost everyone has taken this quotation out of context, and I have too, which means that “chatter” may be on its way to becoming one of those offhand remarks that gets used to make a famous person appear to mean the opposite of what he probably did mean.)

No, Roth’s announcement that he would leave the literary stage, followed by his conspicuous failure to do so in favor of a series of curtain calls, is about us—Roth’s audience, a community of readers. We’re the ones endlessly fascinated by Roth’s penchant to pontificate about himself in public, from an interview with the BBC aired last spring (titled “Philip Roth Unleashed”) to a promised appearance on The Colbert Report (reportedly scheduled for last summer, but apparently scrapped). Through it all, Roth continues to insist that he’s retreating into full Garbo mode. “You can write it down,” he told a reporter last May after a star turn at the 92nd Street Y. “This was absolutely the last public appearance I will make on any public stage, anywhere”—this just a week before collecting an award from the Yaddo writer’s retreat and two weeks before accepting an honorary doctorate at the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary.

Roth’s Where’s Waldo? approach to forsaking the public stage shouldn’t trigger another wearisome debate over how trustworthy the utterances of fiction writers need to be (short answer: not at all). Instead, it should give us a moment’s pause to ask just who Roth thinks he’s talking to—a question that, not incidentally, continues to sit, unanswered and arguably unanswerable, at the heart of all literary enterprise. Just as the moment of reading, the event of literature, is as much a function of a reader’s excited mind as it is the end product of a writer’s work, so too does the phenomenon of Philip Roth’s “retirement” say as much or more about what readers expect from their relationships with writers as it says about Roth, and his gnomic, ever-shifting sense of his own literary posterity.

Philip Roth’s retirement may well go down in history
as one of the literary world’s greatest pranks.

When it comes to the question of what writers are, exactly, in relation to readers, there is a remarkably broad range of thought. On the academic side of book culture, you have the whole death-of-the-author spiel, which would have us believe that writers are completely irrelevant to the literary experience, apart from having served as the corporeal conduit between ether and text. In contrast, on the business side, there’s an entire industry dedicated to manufacturing author personas: a marketing complex based entirely on the notion that readers use books as a means to become intimate with writers who either have, or have been outfitted with, compelling backstories.

These extremes have something to do, I think, with Roth’s assertion—made in the same interview in which he initially offered his momentous announcement—that he would have preferred to have had no biography written of him at all. (Here, too, he was airing a flagrantly Whitmanian self-
contradiction: he had just recently begun collaborating with biographer Blake Bailey.) This interview was first conducted in English two months before the 2012 presidential election, and then translated into French for publication by the arts magazine Les Inrockuptibles. Several weeks later it was translated back into English to appear, in snippets, on Salon and Hyperallergic; finally, The Paris Review got its hands on the original English transcript, and posted it online a week after Obama’s reelection. The exchange is worth a closer look, and not just because it happens to be the one in which Roth gave out that he planned to write nothing at all for at least ten years. (Given that he was seventy-eight at the time, this was taken to mean “retirement,” but it’s noteworthy that Roth himself never used the word.)

Roth was interviewed by the French literary journalist Nelly Kaprièlian, and, in truth, Kaprièlian’s questions are a little cringeworthy in their simplicity, the sort you might expect an undergraduate to pose for extra credit. (One representative sample: “So what makes you write?”) I think it’s possible to sense frustration from Roth when he realizes, at one juncture, that Kaprièlian is not particularly familiar with his work: Kaprièlian asks whether Roth could imagine writing a book about a happy marriage, and Roth’s exclamatory reply—“But I already wrote that book!” (he means The Professor of Desire)—might indicate anything from mildly perturbed condescension to haughty fury. But he’s clearly annoyed, maybe because writers, as a general rule, would prefer to have their books speak for them; that’s what books are for. Yet whether in interviews or in biographies, readers push for something more or something different, and then, more often than not, look askance at the results.

Indeed, Kaprièlian doubts Roth’s answers on several occasions (“Aren’t you exaggerating a little bit?”), and at one moment seems flustered when Roth doesn’t make the straightforward sense she expects (“But you just spent our whole interview saying that the life of a writer has no bearing on his work”). From there, it’s not hard to imagine that Roth, having gone through hundreds, maybe thousands, of interviews like this, might have been starting to wonder whether his books had somehow failed. A glance at his last ten years of production certainly reveals a predilection for dark and ascetic turns of mind, and it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to suggest that by this point he’d sunk into another private oblivion, one that could only be exacerbated by evidence of his books having not been read by the very sorts of people who are charged with safeguarding his contemporary literary reputation.

It’s worth putting the pivotal moment of the interview under a microscope. Kaprièlian has just asked Roth a facile question about whether The Professor of Desire is autobiographical, and Roth handles it with aplomb. She follows up with a simple “Why?”—a way to buy herself a moment to segue to some new topic, perhaps. Then we get this:

[Kaprièlian:] Do you still have the desire to write?
[Roth:] No. Anyway, I have no intention of writing in the next ten years. To tell the truth, I’m finished. Nemesis is going to be my last book. Look at E. M. Forster. He stopped writing at around the age of forty. And I, who used to churn out book after book, haven’t written anything in three years. I’ve been working instead on my archives so I can turn them over to my biographer. I’ve turned over thousands of pages which are like memoirs but not literary, not publishable as such.

What catches my eye here, beyond the odd bombshell that Roth drops in the least likely of places, is the phrase “To tell the truth.” I’ve always been curious about this phrase and phrases like it, such as “Just between you and me” and “Frankly”: they are more tone than literal meaning, and they manage to communicate the exact opposite of what they say. These phrases are interesting, too, because you really can’t, when they turn up in conversation, offer an immediate challenge to them. To do so would to be to slap the face of someone who appears to be extending to you an uncommon intimacy. You can’t very well, as you’re being entrusted with private information (“Just between you and me”) or addressed with unflinching directness (“Frankly”), suggest in the next breath that the speaker’s real goal is either to widely publicize a delicate fact or to make a quasi-rational assertion that is more the product of guile than honesty.

In reality, though, that’s just the sort of assertion that these phrases preface—they are rhetorical tricks that lubricate a strategic duplicity. So whenever I hear someone say “To tell the truth,” I always take it as an admission: either my interlocutor has been deceiving me up to this point—the statement implicitly concedes that whatever has been said before has not amounted to truthfulness—or whatever he or she is about to say is not true at all.

It’s worth mentioning that Roth’s “To tell the truth” in announcing his “retirement” is actually the second time the phrase appears in what is really a quite short interview. The first time, Roth uses it to distance himself from abstractions: “To tell you the truth, I’m not much given to abstractions.” But from there, he immediately attests to a lifelong interest in stories, which are, arguably, a form of applied abstraction, a way of couching ideas in concrete detail that give them body, shape, and substance. This use of “To tell you the truth” is perhaps the first note of Roth’s annoyance in the interview: it comes after Kaprièlian has challenged his assertion that he’s not interested in philosophy. Wasn’t Nemesis, she wants to know, full of philosophical ideas? Roth dodges that part of the question. And when he goes on to say that stories are the only things that interest him, it’s hard not to wonder if what he really means is that interviews are most definitely among those things that do not interest him.

From there, Kaprièlian asks a series of increasingly annoying questions—she’s becoming his nemesis. To the three questions prior to his momentous announcement, Roth responds, semi-hostilely, by rejecting their premises. The interview must have hit a very weird mood for Kaprièlian to have even come up with the relevant query—“Do you still have the desire to write?”—as it’s hard to imagine any interviewer jotting that one down beforehand. And Roth’s answer—“No. Anyway, I have no intention of writing in the next ten years. To tell the truth, I’m finished” (which, incidentally, came as a complete surprise to his agent and his publisher)—is notable because “To tell the truth” seems like an invitation to recognize that what he’s about to say is utter nonsense, nonsense that mirrors and mocks an increasingly nonsensical set of interview questions. The “anyway” smacks of a kind of plaintiveness, a giving up, and it’s tempting to see it as a signal that Roth has now decided to toy with this silly interview, which he probably shouldn’t have agreed to anyway, because readers should read the books a writer writes and not the interviews he or she gives. It’s still more tempting to speculate that what has happened since the interview—Roth chumming the waters of a great bizarre frenzy of analysis that is still under way two years later—may well go down in history as one of the literary world’s greatest pranks.

Anyway, we all know writers don’t retire. Writers might become incapable of going on—that seems to be what happened to García Márquez in his later years—but they don’t just get tired and quit. They can’t quit. Take Stephen Dixon. Not too long ago, I read an assessment of his inexhaustible work in which the critic appeared to be mystified as to why a book of Dixon’s from a decade and a half before was titled 30. The critic was unaware of Dixon’s early career as a journalist, so he can perhaps be forgiven for failing to make the connection with the traditional mark that journalists use to indicate the end of a story: “–30–.” I admittedly have some inside information on this one: I studied with Dixon at Johns Hopkins while he was working on 30, and he was telling everyone that it would be his last book. Yet at least seven others have come since.

So too with Henry James. James never announced a retirement, but he did agree to the 1907–09 reprinting of his lifetime of novel-writing in the so-called New York Edition, which weighed in at twenty-four volumes; in fact, he produced eighteen prefaces of seven thousand words each for the occasion, prefaces that aimed to solidify his work and vision. But James lived more than six years after the last volume of the New York Edition was published, and more books duly arrived. James turned out to be so incapable of retiring that even on his deathbed, after speech left him, he was observed twitching his fingers, as though moving a pen.

The James example is especially appropriate here, because in the Kaprièlian interview, Roth admits to having recently read through all his own published work, much as James did while writing his prefaces. Indeed, Roth reread and annotated first editions of Portnoy’s Complaint and American Pastoral for a Christie’s charity auction last winter, his notes on the former amounting to a short essay dated “12/21/13.” (So much for “no intention of writing in the next ten years.”) And Roth, like James, is an author whose dedication to literature has been described as monastic in nature; what’s more, this particular way of conceiving of an author’s vocation—and hence, his or her relationship with the literary audience—may come from James himself, who likened Balzac to a monk in “The Lesson of Balzac,” a speech that James delivered across America during a 1905 series of appearances that was probably even then regarded as something of a valedictory tour.

Of course, the writers I’ve just listed here—Roth, Dixon, James, and Balzac—are known for incredibly voluminous production, and it should be noted that, for all Roth’s claims of “churn[ing] out book after book,” measured on sheer quantity alone, Roth ranks as the least productive among the four. (And this is to say nothing of his contemporaries: were Roth to go on writing and somehow publish fifty more books, he would still lag well behind the output of Joyce Carol Oates.) The question of quantity may be critical to understanding what’s really going on with Roth’s “retirement.” Recall that Roth compared himself to E. M. Forster immediately upon making the announcement. Forster would appear to challenge the idea that writers can’t quit writing: he produced a relative handful of novels and stories and then packed his bags. But did he “retire”? Did Hawthorne? Did Rimbaud? Did Harper Lee? I don’t think so, and it’s important to note that Roth did not say that Forster “retired,” only that he “stopped writing.” This distinction points us back in the direction of what an audience expects of a writer.

The literary audience is collectively and notoriously fickle—and that’s putting it politely.

The literary audience is collectively and notoriously fickle—and that’s putting it politely. Write too little, and the audience will cry for more and question your nerve if you can’t bring yourself to produce. (This was the recent experience of the celebrated short story writer George Saunders, who came in for a round of Internet carping for his failure to put out a proper, full-scale novel.) Write too much, and the audience will accuse you of mercenary motives and whine about not knowing where to begin in your oeuvre. (Cf. the prolific Oates, and scores of revered but now-neglected masters of the Victorian novel.) Readers, it seems, want enough books to be able glimpse an author from a number of angles, but they don’t want so many that they would have to sign over a significant chunk of their lives just to keep up.

It’s likely that Roth picked Forster as a model because his British forebear hit that just-right sweet spot: a half-dozen novels that, over a few years, just about any reader could fit into even the busiest of schedules. And that brings us to one part of what I have to say about Philip Roth’s “retirement”: it may be that Roth, by his own standards, has written too much. Even if his announcement has since morphed into a brilliant marketing ploy, I think it started out as a sudden and sad realization that in the end he’s going to wind up feeling that a lot of his work has been unnecessary, and will be misunderstood even if it does get read.

And now for the other part: The imposition of “retirement” on Roth’s initial claim may well be a kind of joke, the literary world’s way of insisting that Roth is nothing at all like Forster—he obviously writes from need and compulsion, like Oates and James, and if he really thinks that he’s going to stop writing, well then, we’ll just have to see about that, won’t we, pal? But it also indicates something else, something rather unseemly, I think, about what readers expect from writers these days. Corporate stooges retire. Athletes retire. Factory workers and soldiers and surgeons retire when they are no longer capable of doing their jobs. The whole point of thinking of Roth and James and Balzac as monks of a kind is to emphasize that being a writer is not like having a job from which you might retire—that’s not what a writer is supposed to be in relation to his or her audience. The usefulness of the monk metaphor peters out after the obvious in-this-world-but-not-of-it similarity, and the truth is that writers are not particularly monk-like: they are neither mystics, nor hallowed, nor pure. But the point is that being a writer is a special kind of life, and a writer serves a special role in relation to his or her culture and society. And to suggest even in jest that a writer has “retired” is to cheapen that role, and to cheapen that culture.

One sees this studied diminution of writing and writers almost everywhere these days, as writers are pressed, more and more, to promote themselves, to become their own publicists. Take, for example, the unexpectedly popular event series known as Literary Death Match, in which writers become the sort of vague celebrities one used to see on game shows—though Literary Death Match is even more disturbing in that it would appear to offer metaphoric comfort to the academic notion that a writer’s “job” is, ultimately, to get out of the way, to die. The phenomenon of Philip Roth’s “retirement” has been driven by the fact that he said he would make no more appearances yet has repeatedly appeared, to receive awards, to sit in on conferences devoted to his work, and even to grant more media interviews. What if what Roth really wants is to avoid agreeing to those kinds of appearances that cheapen the writer’s role in society, the kinds that, whatever their intentions, turn the idea of the writer into a cliché? If that were the case, would we still chide him for retiring? Or would we see this deconstruction of the phony intimacy produced by the accessible celebrity author as another reason to thank Roth for his service? Who knows—it might be a welcome excuse to return to a few of the many books he published when we were too busy to take notice.