I heard an interview with Philip Roth on NPR (or MRP, as I just typed it) yesterday on my way home from work. The interview was by way of promoting Roth’s latest book, called Nemesis, about a fictional polio outbreak in Newark.
(I have not added this to my Amazon wish list. Not because I’m not interested, but because I’m forced here to confess that up to this point, I haven’t read ANY Roth, a startling hole in my literary background that I intend to fill first with Portnoy’s Complaint, already purchased and on the to-be-read pile, along with the Saunders essay collection and Joan Silber’s book on narrative time, which I’m very excited about.)
Roth was called out by Robert Cohen several months back in a Believer essay on so-called middle style: “For a writer at once oppressed and liberated by the shadow of catastrophe, and entirely allergic to embarrassment, take the much-remarked-upon late period Philip Roth.” Cohen then quotes a couple of passages designed to contrast the writer’s early, “fastidiously lyrical prose” with his later, “infinitely messier work.”
For me (perhaps unfairly), this whole essay just vibrates with Cohen’s underlying anxiety about aging and relevance. The basic idea, not explicitly stated, being that every artist has some creative peak, which by definition means that there’s a sort of ramping up phase and also a sharp decline. I’m not sure this is technically true. There’s an academic book about different artistic trajectories (prodigy, late bloomer, etc) that I can’t recall the name of and can’t find online (very annoying…this is how I should have been using my wish list years ago). Even if research doesn’t completely support my inkling that Cohen’s approach is predicated on a cherry-picked selection of painters/writers/musicians who conform to his thesis (and some who, arguably, don’t), I think that the answer to this quandary, no doubt overly simplistic, is the same.
Writers write. So write.
I had a crisis of confidence in my writing last week. It was miserable. My ability to write the dream, or whatever it is that John Gardner says, sputtered. I felt delusional about my projects. Every sentence was torturous. But I plodded along, and then things got better, the words came easier, and in due course I emerged on the other side. What changed? The realization that I can only be the writer who I am, and that I can’t control how my work is interpreted or where it fits in with other work or whether it will ever be published or even what it means.
I wrote about Rick Moody’s recent visit a few entries down. Someone in class later brought up the uncomfortable truth that there’s a contingent of people who believe The Ice Storm is his best work, and how it’s strange that he now repudiates it. But how could he not? How could a writer continue to write if he believes that his finest work is behind him? This is where that idea of needing a certain amount of delusional optimism comes into play. And the related notion that the act of writing ought to fulfill some need that the writer has; that the process must be its own reward, critics/book-buying public be damned.
Anyhoo. I was going to highlight some of Roth’s craft ideas that I thought were interesting in the above-referenced interview, but all this other material intruded. I guess it’s like the man says: “The book educates you about the book.”